Mining People Magazinewww.miningpeople.org
A Lot of Stuff to Move
by Debra McCown Thomas
Staff Writer / Field Reporter
ulk material handling might not sound glamorous, but
it’s a critically important piece of what makes mines,
manufacturing, and the overall economy work.
While organizations that represent individual industries might
have an estimate of their economic impact or what they
produce, it’s hard to find broader statistics on just how much
stuff is moving around the country and around the world on a
daily basis – but it’s a lot. A whole lot.
According to the Minerals Education Coalition, a Colorado-
based organization focused on educating people about the
importance of mining, to maintain current living standards the
average person in the US requires more than 38,449 pounds of
minerals each year.
This includes 9,924 pounds of stone; 7,345 pounds of sand
and gravel; 675 pounds of cement; 256 pounds of iron ore; 384
pounds of salt; 182 pounds of phosphate rock; 155 pounds of
clays; 26 pounds of aluminum; 12 pounds of copper; 12 pounds
of lead; 6 pounds of zinc; 34 pounds of soda ash; 6 pounds
of manganese; 23 pounds of other metals; and 624 pounds of
Additionally, to generate the energy each person uses in a
year requires 958 gallons of petroleum; 4,206 pounds of coal;
97,988 cubic feet of natural gas; and 0.13 pounds of uranium.
The U.S. Geological Survey, meanwhile, estimates a total
value of nonfuel minerals to the US economy of $20.5 trillion.
According to a 2018 report, total nonfuel mineral production
in the US that year was $82.2 billion (including 25.3 billion in
construction aggregates), and coal production was $25.7 billion.
Total employment in coal; nonfuel mineral mining; chemicals
and allied products; stone, clay, and glass products; and primary
metal industries was just shy of 1.3 million people. That’s a lot
And there’s a lot of stuff moving around! Production numbers
for a particular mine are only the beginning; those numbers –
whether measured in tons or ounces – only represent a portion
of what actually comes out of the ground. They don’t count all
the stuff that comes out of the ground that’s removed as waste
Sometimes the waste coming from a mine can be 20 times as
much as the product. In some endeavors, like tunnel excavation,
everything that’s excavated is unwanted. No matter what kind
of mining you’re talking about, there’s a lot of material to move.
Often, the processing plant that serves a mine is close by. Other
times, it’s relatively distant, and material must be moved to it
by truck or on a miles-long conveyor. Sometimes the conveyor
travels overland or through tunnels under mountains. There are
conveyors that cross state lines or even the Continental Divide.
That’s just to get the material to the plant.
Then it must go through a process to get it ready for sale.
Depending on the product involved, that may just mean crushing
and sorting through screens – or it could involve significant
processing with chemicals and/or heat. Once it is processed,
the material must be shipped out while the waste must also
be taken somewhere. Storage facilities, meanwhile, must have
their own bulk material handling systems.
The process of shipping itself requires a lot of handling – first
getting it there, then loading and unloading, whether it’s being
transported by rail, truck, barge, or ocean-crossing cargo ship.
Sometimes, it will travel by multiple modes of transportation in
its journey. Every part of the process requires equipment that’s
taken significant engineering skill to design.
There are a lot of people working behind the scenes to make
it all happen. Each new technology builds upon the last, and
in each generation there are those who devote their careers
to improving upon how some aspect of it is done. Beyond the
obvious hardware involved, there’s a whole layer of technology
and software that companies rely on to operate equipment
and make the process run smoothly. This, too, is a source of
constant efforts toward improvement and innovation.
So here’s a shout-out to everyone who works in the bulk
material handling side of the mining industry – whether you’re
an engineer whose life’s work is in building a better conveyor,
or you’re the person who keeps it running day in and day out.
Without a whole lot of people like you, the economy would grind
to a halt.
In modern society, everyone depends upon mined material to
supply their everyday needs. That material does a lot of traveling
from place to place – and the people who make it happen are
critically important to keep the wheels of society turning.