April 24, 1999 - Carboniferous Fossils - Jefferson Co, AL

Thanks to the efforts of Bill Newman, and the courtesy of the Drummond Company, a group of 15 members of the Birmingham Paleontology Society were able to visit the Shoal Creek Mine, a working underground coal mine on Saturday, April 24.

The Shoal Creek Mine is a modern, high-tech coal mine, having begun operation only 5 years ago. Following an introductory safety presentation (mandatory for visitors to the underground workings of the mine), and a fitting of personal safety paraphernalia (hardhat with light, steel-toed rubber boots, and an emergency "self-rescue unit" to remove carbon monoxide from the air in case of fire), we descended about 1900 feet below the surface in a speedy elevator. Once there, we were ushered into several Humvees, the standard mode of motorized travel through the mine's vast network of tunnels. We then drove several miles to see one of the areas being actively mined.

In the Shoal creek mine, coal occurs in two narrow nearly horizontal seams, named the Mary Lee and Blue Creek seams. The rock just above and below the seams is a sandy shale bearing plant fossils, as we discovered at one stop in the underground tour. Two types of mining techniques are used in the mine, continuous mining and longwall mining. Continuous mining machines tunnel directly into the rock, and have been used to form a network of tunnels. In the longwall operation we witnessed, a line of automated shields support the mine ceiling just next to a long (typically a thousand feet) rock face, while a drum shearing machine moves slowly along the length of the wall, continuously gouging about 39" of rockface off and dumping it onto a continuously running chain conveyor belt. The belt delivers the mixture of rock and coal to a continuous rock crusher, and the chain conveyor then connects with a series of conveyors, the last of which carries the coal and rock to the surface along an exit tunnel sloping up to the surface at a 17 degree angle. At the surface, a series of operations separates rock from coal, and sorts coal into sizes appropriate for different uses. The principal customer for the coal from the Shoal Creek mine is Alabama Power Co.

Many of us were quite impressed with the efficiency of the operation and the thorough measures in place to ensure the safety and comfort of the miners. The mine visit was an outstanding educational experience. In fact, it was also a lot of fun. Our thanks to the Drummond Company, the courteous and helpful mine management and miners, and to Bill Newman, who made the arrangements for the tour on behalf of BPS.