Multiple companies across the Appalachian Mountains rely on Volvo Construction Equipment to restore the barren Copper Basin in Tennessee to its former glory.
The year is 1843. Nestled in the Smokey Mountains of southeastern Tennessee, grazing the border with Georgia, a disappointed prospector pans for gold in the Ocoee River. A shallow cloud of fog lifts from the bank, as the man realizes the shining red crystals in his hands are not gold, but rather, copper.
Soon, mines began to scatter – and then multiply – throughout the region, feeding the increasingly abundant flow of copper ore from the depths of the untouched mountains on mule to the growing marketplace. Almost overnight, the once unknown region became known as the Copper Basin. As copper mining boomed, more than 20 mines employed over 3,300 people at an annual payroll of over $35 million before the system was finally disbanded in the late 1980s.
Today, the mines are gone, but they took their toll on this once-pristine corner of Appalachian Mountain range. For more than 150 years, those in search of wealth were involved in various mining, refining and manufacturing operations, resulting in environmental degradation. The toxic practices of extracting the precious metal, spanning decades, have brought both prosperity and despair to the region and its many settlers, leaving in its wake the largest man-made desert in America with over 50 square miles devoid of vegetation.
In what would become the single, largest reclamation project in the southeastern United States, Glenn Springs Holdings, an Occidental Petroleum subsidiary, embarked on a 10 year, $100 million project in 2001 to clean up the Copper Basin and restore the water quality of its streams that feed the Ocoee River. Together, Glenn Springs, the Tennessee Department of Environmental and Conservation (TDEC) and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) worked toward the common goal of environmental sustainability. In addition to attracting environmental conservationists, the reclamation project has lured artists and outdoor enthusiasts, transforming the hallow Basin into Copperhill, a well-known tourist hot spot.
As a result of Glenn Springs’ efforts, Copperhill is now a featured stop along the Blue Ridge Scenic Railroad, with outfitter groups offering mountain biking and whitewater rafting excursions on the Ocoee River.
It’s against this thriving landscape that new opportunities arose. The area is experiencing another revival in the form of commerce, coming from the copper mines themselves.
Abandoned along with buildings and the remnants of the old mining industry of the Copper Basin is calcine – a byproduct of the copper smelting process to remove sulfur. For over a century, the calcine, a black, powdery substance, was thought to be nothing more than unfortunate, unusable leftovers and stockpiled on the mining property. That was, of course, until Copperhill Industries, a company that recycles iron calcine and copper slag by the tonne for resale, purchased one of the abandoned mine sites. Founded in 2011, Copperhill Industries initially intended to demolish all the buildings on the property and sell them for scrap.
While pursuing that endeavor it was discovered that the mounds of black powdery waste actually contained more than 60% iron, which to multiple industrialists around the world is hardly waste – it’s a new kind of black gold. The iron can be extracted from the calcine more cheaply and efficiently than mining iron ore and shipped from the Tennessee Mountains to China and other international markets around the world. At the outset, experts estimated more than 10 million tonnes of calcine was deposited across the abandoned mining sites. It comes as no surprise then that companies far and wide have called on Volvo Construction Equipment to capitalize on the profusion of black gold.
Lance Grading and Construction, based in Blue Ridge, Georgia, is contracted to extract, screen and load the calcine on-site in the Copper Basin. The work is performed with a brigade of Volvo equipment, including two 36.7 tonne EC340 excavators and two 35 tonne L250G wheel loaders. Once extracted, the calcine is loaded onto trucks westbound for the city of Chattanooga and the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway.
In Chattanooga, the calcine is off-loaded from the trucks and onto barges at two terminals on the Tennessee River.
Bill Ramsey, owner of Riverside Industries, a multi-modal shipping complex operates one of the two barges. The scope and volume of work is evident in the numbers he provides while standing in front of a mountain of calcine setting sail on its journey downriver. “We load two barges a day,” says Ramsey. “We load anywhere from 25,000 to 50,000 tonnes at a time using our Volvo L250G and L220F wheel loaders and an EC330B excavator.” Rather than making multiple cycle loads, the L250G and L220F get the job done thanks to the large bucket sizes, high lift capacity and rapid hydraulic reaction. Meanwhile, the 36 tonne EC330B excavator’s boom, arm and swing priority along with boom and arm regeneration keep the operation up and running. With the help of Volvo machines, “we’ve moved over a million tonnes in the last three years,” says Ramsey.
Also involved in this process is Serodino Inc., a barge company that owns and operates the other barge terminal. To efficiently transfer the calcine onto the barges, Serodino uses a Volvo L180E wheel loader and an EC330 excavator. An optimal combination, the L180E offers fast work cycle and smooth bucket movements, while the EC300 delivers high digging and lifting forces as well as quick swing performance. Each barge typically holds 1,500 tonnes, or 65 truckloads of calcine, and with both terminals loading two barges per day, that equals 260 truckloads of production.
Although profitable, the many companies involved in the reclamation project work toward the primary goal of ultimate environmental remediation and redevelopment of the Copper Basin in the hopes of ushering in a greener future.
Back up the mountain in the Copper Basin, Brian Mathews, operations manager for Lance Grading and Construction, looks out at a humming operation from beneath the bill of a Volvo baseball cap. With more than a century worth of calcine built up in the Basin, the company needed reliable machines that could handle a high volume of heavy loads at a high fuel economy. “When the 3’s came out, they said they were true two-pass machines,” says Mathews. “When they came out here with that nine yard bucket and you could do 17 to 18 tonnes at one time, that’s a big difference. When you can move that much extra material and burn less fuel, that’s the way to go.” With superb fuel-efficiency and fast cycle times, Volvo machines are relied upon to power an operation that reuses material, while cleaning up the environment at the same time.
To help bring back an area so ravaged by over a century of misuse, Copperhill Industries focuses on mineral and slag recycling in addition to performing reclamation and cleanup in the Copper Basin. It is estimated there are several million tonnes of various types of slag stored across the Copper Basin. Part of this reclamation is the recycling of the minerals located on the Copperhill Site, using Volvo EC300 and EC340DL excavators and a L120 loader.
All of the Volvo equipment used by the different companies involved in this recycling effort was supplied and supported by the Chattanooga branch of ASC Construction Equipment.
“We were searching for a new excavator, and had almost decided on a competitor when Lance Construction referred us to Dave Parker at ASC,” says Nathan Haynes, operations manager for Copperhill Industries. “Volvo offered us a very competitive deal, and the fuel economy and options, including the CareTrack system for fleet telematics, looked good. We got a demo on an EC340DL and we really liked it. We purchased the machine and were very happy with it. We decided if we were going to get another machine, we wanted to get a Volvo. Since then, every piece of construction equipment we have purchased has been a Volvo.”
The Volvo advantage is helping to keep an entire reclamation and recycling effort operational across multiple companies and across hundreds of miles. Much of what was once wrong with an old industry is now being made right by a new one focused on efficiency, smart technology and teamwork. An industry that is very fittingly powered by Volvo Construction Equipment.
Picture 1: The Volvo L20G wheel loader utilizes its large bucket size, high lift capacity and rapid hydraulic reaction to optimize productivity and performance on-site.
Picture 2: The EC330B excavator scales the mountain of calcine with ease, offering unshakeable stability thanks to the heavy-duty undercarriage and tractive force.
Picture 3: The Volvo wheel loader is purpose-built with more power and a bigger bucket size to load more in less time.