Rob Smith – Senior Minerals Planner
A key challenge for the developer of the major new Woodsmith Mine, now being built in the National Park, is how to get the polyhalite mineral from the mine itself to a suitable location for further processing and export without causing unacceptable impact on the environment. Solving this problem was a critical step towards the eventual decision to grant planning permission. Although it forms only one element of what is a huge and complex construction project, digging the 23 mile (37km) mineral transport tunnel from the minehead south of Whitby to the processing site at Wilton on Teesside is a massive undertaking in its own right. Work on the tunneling is about to start.
It may not be widely known that there is a patron saint for mining, Saint Barbara. This reflects the fact that mining has been, and to some extent remains, a risky business and it is perhaps not surprising that a degree of divine support is called upon to help look after those involved at the sharp end. Similarly, it is not unusual for mining machines themselves to be treated with a certain degree of reverence, like you would a ship, in order to help them on their way. Within that context, Sirius Minerals recently held a naming ceremony and blessing for the first of three huge tunnel boring machines (TBMs) to be used to construct the required tunnel.
A cold, bright, breezy April day at Wilton saw an estimated 200 or so visitors and workers gather in a mass of high viz jackets to watch the ceremony. Local schools had put forward a short list of names: Persephone (Queen of the Underworld according to Greek mythology); Gertrude (for Gertrude Bell, the famous explorer with connections to Redcar) and Stella Rose (Stella to reflect the ‘bright star’ link with the Sirius name and Rose from Roseberry Topping, the prominent landmark near the Wilton end of the tunnel). An online poll of around 7,000 votes found in favour of Stella Rose and 8 year old local primary school pupil Warren Walls, along with the Leader of Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council, unveiled the name on the day. A short blessing by a local Cannon followed, invoking the assistance of Saint Barbara in achieving a safe and successful outcome.
Whilst divine intervention is all well and good, the TBM is clearly also the product of great engineering talent and ingenuity. Resembling a cross between a freight train and a pre-launch space rocket lying horizontally, it is more capsule than machine – a self-contained burrowing monster weighing 1,800 tonnes and 225 metres in length (that’s two full size football pitches end to end) including on-board canteen and washrooms!
Tunneling through the Redcar mudstone towards the Woodsmith Mine site will start in earnest over the next few weeks and will take two years or so to complete, as part of a giant subterranean relay along with the other two TBMs.
Whilst there will always be differing views about the decision to grant permission for the mine development, the sheer scale and intensity of the construction effort, driven in part by the need to help conserve the environment of the National Park, is impressive to witness.