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Mining People Magazine

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

other nonmetals.

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

of people!

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

during processing.

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.