A benchmark coal wash plant in the new mining hotspot of Mongolia has hit its critical ‘lights on’ date with the help of nine Australian electrical engineers.
Located in the South Gobi region near the Mongolian/Chinese border, the Uhkaa Khudag mine is the first large-scale coal mine in Mongolia to be developed and operated to international mining standards and practices. Owned by an international consortium called Energy Resources, the mine’s output of 800 tonnes of coal per hour is destined for the Chinese market.
Project supervisors from Australian electrical installation solutions provider, O’Donnell Griffin, gave up their Christmas and New Year holidays to travel to Mongolia to help supervise the electrical installation at the brand new facility. They ensured quality and safety standards were upheld and trained the local workers on the job.
The O’Donnell Griffin team, headed by project manager, Stephen Jago, was subcontracted to Sedgman Limited, the plant’s Australian designer and builder.
“We’ve done many coal wash plant installations with Sedgman in the past and we have a very strong working relationship,” said Jago.
“They knew the quality of our work was high and they knew we could immediately provide the level of human resources required, so they came straight to us to run this project. Reaching the ‘lights on’ stage is significant because it means the high voltage reticulation is complete, the structure is in place, and power has been introduced into the main switchboard.”
O’Donnell Griffin’s role was to supervise and train the local tradesmen, ensuring the design specifications and quality standards were adhered to strictly.
“Mongolia is a new mining hotspot and the local tradesmen don’t quite have the necessary specialised skills yet,” explained Jago.
“Our engineers helped guide the local workers in their day-to-day tasks, giving them the skills and advice they needed to keep the project running smoothly. The plant is Australian-designed and needed to be built according to stringent specifications, so we needed to show the locals how to rig and wire the installation correctly.”
While O’Donnell Griffin has managed many remote and overseas projects, this one presented particular challenges because of unpredictable and extreme weather conditions as well as language and cultural barriers.
“The first two staff members to go to Mongolia were Mark Withers and Jacob O’Brien. They both gave up their Christmas and New Year holidays with their families to go from a sweltering Queensland summer to a freezing Mongolian winter,” said Jago.
“Temperatures fell to around minus 27 degrees C. Meanwhile, the guys were living in tiny huts heated by pot belly stoves. The food was unfamiliar and there were only a few English-speaking locals. There were days the guys couldn’t work at all because of blizzards or sandstorms.
“Maintaining morale was a definite concern, so we tried to make their working conditions as flexible as possible. They worked 28-day shifts followed by a 10-day holiday back home in Australia.
"It was a challenge, but all nine guys maintained a positive attitude – they were there to get the job done and they did that job safely and effectively. There were no injuries or other problems on site even though the weather conditions were so treacherous.”
Mark Withers and Jacob O’Brien were chosen to be the first to travel to Mongolia because of their highly specialised skills as engineers and supervisors. They were followed by an additional seven engineers. All nine workers have now returned to Australia.
“This was a $10 million installation. Each of our engineers supervised between 30 and 40 local tradespeople. It was an Australian design being installed to Australian specifications with Australian quality standards.
"Those standards were very different to what the local workers were used to. For example, while the Australians are used to bringing lots of heavy equipment like cranes and winches to get the job done, the Mongolians are more used to relying on pure manpower,” said Jago.
O’Donnell Griffin would normally use its own tradespeople on a job like this, but part of the project involved training the locals.
“There are a few key concepts that are second nature to O’Donnell Griffin employees but were less familiar to the local tradespeople,” said Jago.
“Safety was the first one. Our guys are used to examining situations, then quickly and effectively determining the safest way to proceed. They don’t take risks and they don’t get hurt.
"The second concept was quality. Doing it properly and getting it right, even if it takes a few seconds longer. Rigorously testing the system and maintaining quality assurance.
“It was a challenge to communicate those concepts through the language barrier because the vast majority of the local tradies didn’t speak English. We used interpreters and English-speaking supervisors where possible. It was a big challenge but our guys really pulled it off and the local workers proved they were more than up to the job.
“We recruited the team both internally and externally to make sure we got the right mix of skills, experience and attitude. We have a large pool of talent that we can call on to ramp up for jobs when we need them,” said Jago.
Since the fall of communism in 1991, Mongolia has seen the beginnings of a potentially huge mining boom. Australian companies are getting in on the ground floor and the geographical and population similarities between the two countries have seen natural synergies develop to the benefit of both nations.