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Highwall Mining
Eric N. Berkhimer


The concept of highwall mining refers to recovering coal

by boring openings beyond the highwall limits produced
by strip mining after the economic limit is reached due to
increasingly high strip ratios. In general, the term encompasses traditional auger mining as well as the more recent
advances using a relatively new class of equipment under the
heading of highwall miners. Auger mining is, in essence,
the practice of using a large drill, turned horizontally to
bore into the coal seam, and is generally limited to thicknesses of 0.6 to 4.8 m (2 to 16 ft). It began in West Virginia
(United States) in the mid-1940s, but the machines at that
time were limited in the penetration they could achieve.
Advancements in technology were made intermittently over
the ensuing decades and peaked in the 1970s and 1980s with
higher horsepower units that could achieve a deeper penetration into the seam. Highwall miners, developed primarily in
the 1990s, use continuous miners to advance into the coal
seam and are able to achieve greater penetration depths and
increased coal recovery.
Highwall mining is most commonly practiced when
contour strip mining has been exhausted, such as in the
Appalachia region of the United States (mainly Kentucky
and West Virginia). It has also found some application in
other parts of the United States as well as a number of coal
regions around the world. According to Newman and Zipf
(2005), the concept of highwall mining has been used effectively to mine
Abandoned prereclamation law highwalls,
Points or ridges that are considered uneconomic to mine
by traditional underground or other surface methods,
Outcrop barriers left at the entrance to underground
Previously augered areas containing otherwise inaccessible reserves, and
Multiple coal seams.
In another paper, Zipf (2005) further reports that highwall mining may account for approximately 4% of total U.S.
coal production or upward of some 60 Mt (65 million tons) of
raw coal annually. There are reported to be approximately 60

highwall mining systems and as many as 150 auger systems in

use across the United States.


In order for a site to be considered for highwall mining,

a number of site conditions must be taken into account.
Important details include the overburden thickness (including
maximum expected thickness in mountainous areas), the pit
floor condition, the possibility of intersecting abandoned or
current underground mine workings, any intersection of previously drilled auger holes, and any fractures or jointing in the
highwall. Highwall stability is a major ground controlrelated
safety concern because of the proximity of the highwall mining equipment to the highwall. In fact, some states have certain
regulations for reclaiming areas mined by highwall mining as
well as for working below a highwall (including the requirement for benching of the highwall). For example, Ohio and
Kentucky (United States) mining regulations include special
requirements for reclaiming mining pits that have been auger
mined (McCarter and Smolnikar 1992). These include special
sealing of the auger holes and time requirements for backfilling the area when the augering has been completed.
Other geologic condition requirements include continuity of the coal seam, a relatively uniform seam thickness, and
a near horizontal orientation (less than 10 pitch). These are
considered essential because of the potential adverse effects
encountered, particularly related to contamination/dilution of
the coal.
Any highwall mining plan should consider the hole width
(or diameter), the web pillar width (coal left in place between
holes), barrier pillar width (a wider block of coal left between
two series of holes), and the number of holes between barrier
pillars. Additional care must be taken regarding the design if
operations are recovering multiple seams in close proximity
to one another.
The most widely accepted empirical formula for relating
pillar strength to coal strength, pillar height, and pillar width
in the United States is the MarkBieniawski pillar design formula, which, because the pillar length is much greater than
either the pillar height or width in highwall mining, can be
simplified to

Eric N. Berkhimer, Senior Applications Engineer, P&H Mining Equipment, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA



SME Mining Engineering Handbook

Table 10.10-1 Pillar width calculation based on mining height

anddepth of cover
Mining Height, m

Design Depth
of Cover, m





























































































Source: Adapted from Vandergrift et al. 2004.

Sp = Sc [0.64 + (0.54 # W/h)]


where Sp is the pillar strength, Sc is the in-situ coal strength, W

is the pillar width, and h is the pillar height.
According to Vandergrift et al. (2004), a standard figure
of 6.2 MPa (899 psi) for coal strength can be applied for an
initial calculation.
After pillar strength is calculated, pillar loading is
required to calculate a safety factor. Pillar loading can be estimated using the tributary area method:
Lp = Sv (W + WE )/W


where Lp is the average vertical load on the pillar, Sv is the insitu vertical stress, and WE is the entry width.
Finally, an appropriate safety factor must be determined.
Although this is somewhat dependent on specific site conditions, a web pillar safety factor of 1.5 and a barrier pillar
safety factor of 1.0 are adequate for many sites.
Table 10.10-1 shows the results of pillar width calculations for the case study detailed later in this chapter based on
varying seam heights and overburden cover depths (affecting
the vertical load on each pillar). Numbers have been omitted
where the W/h ratio is less than 1.0.
The major equipment manufacturers often offer their
experience and expertise to users to design the web and barrier pillars and for hole pattern planning. In addition, several
modeling programs are available to assist with highwall mine
design. LAMODEL is a nonlinear boundary-element method
used to examine in-seam pillar behavior. UDEC is a distinctelement code used to examine the stability and interaction of
the floor, seam, and roof. Additional details can be found in
the paper by Vandergrift et al. (2004).
Preparation in advance of using a highwall miner is relatively straightforward. The highwall should be groomed to
remove any loose materials that could fall. The pit floor needs
to be leveled and cleaned, and a roadway parallel to the highwall should be constructed for access to the equipment and for
beltways and/or truck transportation to move the mined coal.
The area should be at least 15 to 25 m (50 to 70 ft) in width,
although some design engineering is under way to make the
equipment more compact for working on narrower benches.


Highwall mining methods are generally a low-cost, highproduction application. Operation is generally considered to
be safer than traditional surface or underground mining, but
equipment size is somewhat limited. It can often result in less
ash (from dilution by the surrounding rock) than surface mining. Maximum recovery is achieved with straight highwalls,
while the inside and outside of curves require fanning of the
holes and loss of the reserves located between holes. Because
of this, careful mine planning is required.
Figure10.10-1 shows a typical range of costs per metric
ton of coal recovered by highwall mining. As shown, the primary factors influencing costs are seam height, and roof and
floor conditions. Seam height is defined as low (<1 m [3.2 ft]),
medium (12 m [3.26.6 ft]), and high (>2 m [6.6 ft]). Roof
and floor conditions include flatness, smoothness, and hardness of the floor material as well as competency of the roof
material. For example, a floor that has less than a 1 incline
and is free of undulations will have a significant cost advantage over an area where the floor is at a higher angle or has
undulations that are cut with the coal causing contamination
of the coal or a roof that has material that will fall once the
coal is removed. These have been classified as easy, average,
and difficult.
Augers are also a highly productive method of coal
recovery with relatively low capital and labor requirements.
A three- to four-person crew can average 90 to 2,200 t (100 to
2,500 tons) per shift. However, because a web pillar generally
of 0.3m (1 ft) for every 0.6 m (2 ft) in hole diameter is left
in place, recovery averages only 40% to 60%. Additionally,
productivity decreases as the depth increases because of the
greater torque requirements from the power unit. After the
auger is in the seam, the operator cannot see the moving
machinery, so operating an auger unit is a highly specialized
skill requiring an experienced operator. Further, guidance is
difficult as holes tend to drift downward and in the direction
of rotation. Most auger mining is limited to a penetration distance into the coal seam of 90 to 150 m (300 to 500 ft) or less.
Because of these limitations, more advanced highwall
mining systems were developed in the 1990s. These units also
allow operation with three- to four-person crews, but they can
produce at a considerably higher rate than traditional auger
minersup to 3,600 t (4,000 tons) per shift. The coal recovery is also improved, up to 70% of the coal being recovered.
Penetration into the coal seam can be up to nearly 500 m
(1,640 ft). Technological advances also allow better ability for
the operator to keep the unit operating in a straight line and
in the coal.


Augers are essentially large drills turned and used in a horizontal direction. They can range from 0.6 to 2.4 m (2 to 8 ft)
in diameter and 18 to 61 m (60 to 200 ft) in length. A typical
auger consists of the cutterhead, auger flights to add increased
penetration depth and move the coal to the surface, and a prime
mover to provide the power to drive the auger. Augers achieve
production by exploiting the low tensile strength of the coal
rather than overcoming its high compressive strength. As such,
the key parameters in achieving production are the cutterhead
(auger) diameter, the available power, the penetration depth,
and the coal type and hardness. Auger performance is directly
related to the machine power and the cutterhead diameter.

Highwall Mining


U.S. Dollars per Metric Ton







Seam Height

Figure 10.10-1 Comparison of mining costs based on seam

height and floor conditions

Highwall mining systems were developed in the 1990s

to combat the deficiencies experienced with traditional auger
mining. Dominated principally by two original equipment
manufacturers (OEMs), these systems consist of four basic
parts: (1) the cutterhead module consisting of a continuous
miner head and gathering arms; (2) the powerhead assembly,
which pushes the cutterhead forward; (3) some type of loading
and conveying system; and (4) the base unit, which contains
the electrical and hydraulic systems. These units are used to
mine parallel entries rectangular in cross section into the coal.
The cutterhead modules range from 0.75 to 5 m (2.5to 16 ft)
in diameter. A highwall miner is shown in Figure10.10-2.
In the mid-1980s, the U.S. Bureau of Mines (Mayton and
Volkwein 1989) conducted research in developing a thin-seam
continuous miner with transportation to the surface using a
multiple-unit continuous haulage system (as used in underground room-and-pillar mining). The key feature and development of this system was an onboard ventilation system that
kept the air around the cutterhead clear to permit an operator, functioning by remote control, to see the face using video
cameras. Although some features of this were put to use by
the later highwall mining systems described previously, this
system is not being used commercially.
As a system, recent advances in highwall mining (and
particularly with the highwall mining systems described) have
centered on greatly improved productivity, better clean coal
recovery, and deeper penetration. OEMs have also labored to
develop narrow-bench machines that allow operation on previously mined highwalls (highwalls that were mined before
reclamation laws came into existence and are still open). In
addition, a more global reach has been developed, resulting
in highwall mining moving out of Appalachia to locations
including, among others, the western United States, Russia,
Australia, and South Africa. Finally, there has been a more
engineered approach to web and barrier pillar design to
improve overall highwall stability and safety for the mining
crews, as evidenced by several studies and design formulae
detailed previously and OEM involvement.
Future developments in the field of highwall mining are
expected to center on achieving deeper penetration, resulting in higher productivity and the ability to work on steeper
sloped seams (greater than 10 pitch). This will allow more

Courtesy of Terex SHM.

Figure 10.10-2 Highwall mining system

applications to be used and better coal recoveries from a multitude of applications currently not conducive to highwall


Vandergrift et al. presented a case study in 2004 detailing

a project to perform highwall mining at Bridger Coals Jim
Bridger mine in southwestern Wyoming (United States). The
mine was using the ADDCAR highwall mining system supplied by Mining Technologies, Inc., of Ashland, Kentucky.
Potential target areas were identified in four areas of the mine
with mining to occur on up to five seams.
Because of the large number of areas identified and the
mining of multiple seams in each area, a number of geotechnical issues were first identified. In order to work through these
issues, Bridger Coal drilled a series of five geotechnical core
holes. Inspection, testing, and analyses of these cores provided the basic input parameters for later calculations.
Roof competency and stability was analyzed using the
CSIR Rock Mass Rating (RMR) method. Pillar design calculations were then made using the modified MarkBieniawski
formula (Equation10.10-1), and pillar loading was calculated
using tributary area theory (Equation10.10-2). Table10.10-1
shows the results of these calculations at different mining
heights and cover depths.


SME Mining Engineering Handbook

The empirical results were then confirmed based on

previous on-site experiences. Numerical modeling using
LAMODEL and UDEC were then applied to confirm pillar
stability, explore the effects of seam interaction, test designs
against cascading pillar failure (when failure in one pillar
results in stress transfer to adjacent pillars that, in turn, fail),
and examine roof and floor stability. LAMODEL and UDEC
modeling essentially confirmed the validity of other calculations and the design plan formulated.
When the design plan was completed, Bridger Coal filed
the necessary applications and revisions with the Wyoming
Department of Environmental QualityLand Quality Division
and the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration for mining permit revisions and ground control plan approvals. Final
approvals were received in January 2003.
The mine then scheduled highwall mining and laid out
the panels consisting of 20 entries each using the web and
barrier pillar design tables developed previously. Subsidence
monitoring (as a condition of the permit approvals) was established over the area to be affected. Mining was initiated in the
D41 seam of the Northern area of the mine in April 2003 with
the first hole completed on April 10, 2003. Average penetration of the first 18 holes was 458 m (1,503 ft) or 94% of the
planned penetration. A previously undetected fault was then
encountered in holes 19 through 40, which caused average
penetration to drop to 71% of planned penetrationor 344 m
(1,129 ft). The plan was then altered to mine only one additional panel at a planned penetration of 305 m (1,000 ft). This

panel achieved an average penetration of 298 m (978 ft) or

98% of the target.
Despite the geologic problems encountered, the implementation of the ADDCAR system at the Jim Bridger mine
is viewed as a success. Penetration depths as high as 488 m
(1,600 ft) have been achieved, and the web pillar design has
provided a stable highwall.
Mayton, A.G., and Volkwein, J.C. 1989. Ventilation for new
highwall mining system. In Proceedings of the 4th Mine
Ventilation Symposium, Berkeley, California, June 57.
Littleton, CO: SME.
McCarter, M.K., and Smolnikar, H.M. 1992. Auger mining.
In SME Mining Engineering Handbook, 2nd ed., Vol. 2.
Edited by H.L. Hartman. Littleton, CO: SME.
Newman, D., and Zipf, R.K. 2005. Analysis of highwall mining stabilityThe effect of multiple seams and prior
auger mining on design. In Proceedings of the 24th
International Conference on Ground Control in Mining,
Morgantown, West Virginia, August 24. Edited by S.S.
Peng, C. Mark, G.L. Finfinger, S.C. Tadolini, and K.A.
Heasley. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University.
Vandergrift, T., Gerhard, W., Carrick, J., and Sturgill, J. 2004.
Extending surface reserves through highwall mining
Design, planning and field performance. SME Preprint
No. 04-94. Littleton, CO: SME.
Zipf, R.K., Jr. 2005. Ground control design for highwall mining. SME Preprint 05-82. Littleton, CO: SME.