THE past year has been one of significant change for Wesfarmers Resources’ Curragh mine. The company saw production soar nearly 18 per cent in three months at its primary after completing a $286 million plant expansion — part of its strategy to
respond to volatility in the world coal market.
Wesfarmers hoped to increase production at Curragh, which covers about 12,600 hectares in the coal-rich Bowen Basin in Central Queensland. The company predicted the improvements would increase its export capacity to between 8 million tonnes per 8.5mtpa from the previous 6.5mtpa. During the June quarte   new facilities online, Curragh set a company record, producing metallurgical coal at a rate of 780,000t per month.
The mine’s output for the period totalled 3.05mt, comprising 2.34mt of coking coal and 710,000t of steaming coal. Coking coal production was up 31.4 per cent and steaming coal rose 12.2 per cent compared with the March quarter, according to the
Perth-based conglomerate.
Wesfarmers is part of the Wesfarmers group, which also includes Coles, Bunnings, Target, Kmart and Officeworks.
The Wesfarmers board said earlier this year that it would consider further expansion to 10mtpa, but chief executive Richard Goyder said at the time that the coal business was “under pressure” due to softening export prices and rising costs.
Newcastle coal prices — the Australian benchmark — have fallen from more than US$110 per tonne at the start of the year to about US$83/t.
The company has maintained that a lower production goal was more practical, especially in light of staff cuts made at Curragh in mid October.
“We’re pretty well gearing to just hit the eight to eight-and-a-half million tonnes for the next two to three financial years,” Wesfarmers general manager Craig McCabe said when the company announced that it would sack 200 contract workers.
Part of the improvement was the result of production returning to normal levels. Curragh took a hit because of flooding in Queensland during December 2010 and January 2011. Output decreased significantly because of mine closures, and the clean-up effort was substantial.
Expansion and efficiency
The year-long expansion involved the installation of a 1200 tonne-per-hour coal handling and preparation plant (CHPP).The new facility was built a the existing CHPP, which had been in operation for more than 25 years and was decommissioned when the new one opened.
Additional equipment was installed to handle overburden, which is being removed and transported by a Bucyrus 495HR electric shovel and 360t-capacity Liebherr 282C ultra-class trucks. To transport the additional tonnage, the project included the inclusion of more export rail and port capacity. Wesfarmers also secured an added 1.5mt export capacity at the Wiggins Island Coal Terminal and signed a contract with QR Network for rail transport.
The CHPP was designed following extensive studies into the characteristics of the coal at Curragh, to achieve optimal quality and maximum recovery. All sections of the plant were designed for efficiency, with simultaneous output from two production streams and effective blending of both feed and product coals.
Deluge delays
According to the company’s Sustainability Report 2011, the expansion project’s completion was delayed due to record rainfall and flooding in the region, and the facility did not meet its scheduled commissioning at the end of 2011.
The repeated deluges also resulted in Curragh experiencing difficulty in managing its water balance within the requirements of the existing Environmental Authority. To enable the site to effectively manage its water balance and remain in compliance
with the Environmental Protection Act, Curragh applied for, and was granted, a Transitional Environmental Program (TEP).
The conditions within the TEP replaced the conditions of the Environmental Authority and enabled Curragh to effectively manage water while minimising the potential for environmental harm. The mine maintained its environmental monitoring programs in accordance with the TEP  requirements, avoiding any regulatory breaches or fines in 2010 to 2011, the report said.
Wesfarmers reported that it expected that open cut reserves at Curragh would enable production levels to be