Australian Mining Prospect Awards Winners: Mine Manager – Mike Stone

For steering his team to the successful completion of open cut mining at Energy Resources of Australia’s Ranger Mine, Pit 3, five weeks ahead of schedule and with zero incidents, Mike Stone has walked away with this year’s Mine Manager award.

Mike Stone is Mining Operations Manager at Energy Resources of Australia (ERA), which operates the Ranger uranium mine in Jabiru, in the Northern Territory, Australia.

Ranger’s success as one of the world’s premier uranium mines hinges on the successful transition from open cut to an underground operation, a transition which today is well underway with the construction of the Ranger 3 Deeps exploration decline. 

From 2011, through 2012, to the first half of 2013, Stone successfully engaged operational mining teams with a strong focus on productivity, safety and communication, playing a pivotal role in the successful completion of open cut mining at Ranger.

The completion of open cut mining in November 2012 was achieved five weeks ahead of schedule, with zero lost time injuries for the year, and enabled ERA to successfully recover the remaining high grade ore located at the bottom of Pit 3.

This brought to a close a 31 year chapter in the history of uranium mining, in which ERA became one of only three uranium mines in the word to produce more than 100,000 tonnes of uranium oxide, and positioned ERA to take full advantage of its new role as an underground exploration operation.    

After decades of open cut mining, the operating Ranger Pit 3 was deep and steep, with the remaining high grade ore located at the bottom, where the orebody plunged deeper into the earth.

This deeper orebody forms part of the Ranger 3 Deeps mineralised zone, which is estimated to contain an estimated 34,000 tonnes of uranium oxide, and represents one of the world’s most significant recent uranium discoveries.

While ERA developed plans for an underground exploration decline, the task for mining operations was to safely access and recover remaining high grade ore in Pit 3, in line with the schedule for closure of open cut mining at the end of 2013.

With ERA committed to increased capital expenditure on water management and the underground exploration decline, and a general softening of global prices for uranium, the contribution of the high grade ore to ERA’s bottom line was critical.

Stone’s mining operations teams faced significant challenges, of which the greatest was the Top End’s signature feature – incredible wet seasons.

After each wet season, there would be a delay in accessing the pit due to the time required to pump out the water that had accumulated. With the pit progressively reaching maximum depth, the volume of water increased, taking more time to de-water.

Shortly after Stone arrived at ERA from the arid plains of the Pilbara, he witnessed some of the heaviest rainfall experienced in the Jabiru region in the 2010/2011 wet season, and then again in the following 2011/2012 wet season.

Additional challenges came with strong competition for mine haul truck drivers; the voluntary shut-down made it harder to retain skilled operators.

The business response to the planned transition from open cut mining to a focus on underground exploration and processing stockpiled ore was to seek savings in all aspects of the business.

In short, the ERA mining operations manager’s outlook for 2012 was a pit full of water, shortage of skilled staff, budget cuts, and a non-negotiable deadline of December 31 for completing one of the world’s greatest open cut uranium mines.

Clear communication between Stone’s mining operations requirements and the water management team resulted in close working arrangements, in which both groups collaborated on plans designed to deliver ERA’s overall water management and mining operations objectives.

In July 2011 the Water Management team commissioned additional pond water treatment infrastructure, doubling the existing water treatment capacity.

This accelerated removal of water from the pit and the operations team was able to reduce the level of water in the pit to resume mining in June 2012.

Stone also oversaw changes to blasting techniques which improved safety and productivity, and backfilling rehabilitation efficiencies.

Stone said he was humbled by the win, giving much credit to the success of the operation to his team.

“It was a team effort, I am very lucky that I have a confident team and a team of people around me are supportive,” Stone said.

“They worked effectively and safely and that helped us finish.”

Stone said the best advice he has ever received was to value your people, and says it is still the one thing he would say to those looking at becoming mine managers.

“Bring them on the journey,” Stone said.

“I’d like to think that’s how we achieved this and that would be my recommendation."

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