Cleveland Potash mine sits near Boulby on the picturesque North Yorkshire coast nestled amongst the green fields and with commanding views of the North Sea. It began production of potash in 1973. Operating down to depths of 1400 metres it is the only mine of this type in the UK and is the second deepest mine in Europe and extends out like the branches on a tree up to 7km out under the North Sea. Each year the mine produces over one million tons of potash and three quarters of a million tons of salt. It operates 365 days a year and employs just over a thousand workers directly as well as providing business to many other firms and contractors in the area who support the mine in various ways.
Potash products are used for fertilizer production, as well as for glass making and applications in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. The salt products also meet a variety of needs, from winter road maintenance that we will all be familiar with to sugar beet cultivation and also as an ingredient in animal feeds.
Also located on the site is the Deep Underground Science Facility. The facility which is funded by the Science and Technologies Facilities Council is one of only a few in the world allowing research in this type of environment into astrophysics, climate change, dark matter research and other multidisciplinary science experiments. It is currently undergoing a rebuild to provide a new laboratory underground and this is expected to be completed next year. The nature of the facility and being so far underground offers ideal conditions for the various experiments to take place.
Once the seam that contains the potash and salt has being mined underground it is then transported by a system of conveyors to the surface and then enters a process that breaks down the rock into the small pellets that will then be sent for onward distribution to the end user. The product is then moved either by lorry to other parts of the country or it is taken by train to Tees Dock where it is then stored and eventually loaded onto container ships before heading off to other destinations around the country or to different parts of the world.
I recently spent 2 days at the site and covered much of the mining operations. Below are a selection of some of the pictures …I’ve broken it down into 5 main areas showing the processes involved with mining the potash or salt underground, through the production process and then the onward movement to the docks for shipping and touched briefly on the Underground Science facility. The captions below the pictures contain further information and offer more explanation about the specifics and at the end I’ve highlighted some of the photographic aspects of the shoot.
1 – UNDERGROUND OPERATIONS
First light arrives over the Potash mine at Boulby. The second deepest mine of this type in Europe.
Potash miners hand in their tokens before riding down into the mine…
…each person gets 2 tokens when they head down. Hand in one when you go down and hand in the other when you come up. This keeps track of how many people are underground.
Everyone going underground must were suitable PPE – Personal Protection Equipment – use a head lamp, wear protective glasses and carry (the silver containers seen on the shelves) a self rescuer breathing apparatus which can generate oxygen in an isolated close cycle by chemical reaction allowing the wearer to leave an area of low or contaminated oxygen supply.
Miners stand in the cage as it is about to make the 5 minute descent to the bottom of the mine…
…on arrival at the bottom they head off to their various work locations. As this shaft is used to pump the oxygen down into the mine there is the huge noise of rushing air as you step out the cage.
It takes around 30 minutes or so to reach a working face. Land Rover defenders and flat bed trucks are used to transport the miners. All the roads underground are
mined into the Salt layer as this is more stable than the potash layer above it.
Steve Shaw who kindly acted as my guide for the day is a seasoned miner of 20-plus years at Boulby. He pretty much knows everything there is to know about potash mining
and here he checks a device used to alarm the user if it picks up traces of gas in the air.
These two ‘green’ pictures show the ‘Safe Havens’ that are spaced at various areas throughout the mine. Reinforced areas that in the event of
an incident underground miners can try and reach. Inside there are emergency water supplies, breathing equipment and communications to the surface…
…the entrance door to the ‘Safe Haven’…
…the room is filled with emergency equipment ready for use inside the ‘Safe Haven’.
At the face of the potash seam an operator uses a remote control system to control the continuous mining machines…
…these rock cutting machines are fitted with tungsten carbide tipped cutting teeth that rip the rock out as it is driven slowly into the potash seam…
…the rock is then passed through the machine and into a waiting ‘shuttle car’ that takes the potash to a conveyor where it then moves along another tunnel or ‘bunker’ to be
stored until it is taken to the surface.
Dave Elliot is a ‘bunker operator’ and runs the conveyors shown below that transport the potash or salt through the mine to be lifted to the surface.
Steve Shaw chats with one of the shift managers as they stand in one of the passages mined into the rock…in many places the only light comes from their lamps.
Communications can be maintained within certain areas of the mine using tannoy and intercom systems.
Due to the high temperatures the miners working at the face of the seam pause for regular short breaks during their shift to take on water and drinks to remain hydrated.
Many of the blue flask containers that can be seen are also filled with ice to help keep the drinks cold…
…as can be found in many different jobs there is also a good bit of craic and banter amongst the blokes working together.
Craig Shillito (left) a fitter and Leon Grobler, an electrician take a short break from working. Due to the high temperatures involved many of the miners wear shorts.
At the end of the shift one group of miners wait to be called forward to get the cage up back to the surface…
…obviously everyone wants to get back up to the surface quickly so they can knock off so there is no hanging about when they’re given the nod to enter the cage.
..on arrival at the surface each person hands over the second of his tokens before entering a room to re-charge the batteries for the head-lamps and to replace other safety
equipment before grabbing a shower and heading home.
2 – UNDERGROUND SCIENCE FACILITY
As I mentioned in the introduction above also situated at Boulby Potash mine is the ‘Deep Underground Science Facility’…
At around 1200 metres below the surface Scientist Chris Toth, 23 stands on the site of a new laboratory
that is currently under construction and which will eventually replace the current lab and offer some improved facilities…
Funded by the Science Technologies and Facilities Council the scientists like Director and Senior Scientist Dr Sean Paling (left) can perform research and experiments into astrophysics, climate change and dark matter research along with other experiments…
It is one of the few laboratories in the world that, due to the unique area in which it is located, allows for the optimum conditions for many of the experiments undertaken.
3 – SURFACE PRODUCTION
The potash and salt that is mined in the labyrinth of tunnels underground is brought to the surface via conveyors and lifts and
undergoes a process to break down the rock and eventually turn it into the various different finished potash products…
All surface operations are overseen by the main control room and each stage of the process is monitored constantly for safety and efficiency…
The main production area is vast and allows for a 2-part ‘wet-end’ and ‘dry-end’ production process involving the breaking down of the rock, removing impurities and
a filtering and drying process that brings the product to a state when it is ready to be distributed…
Steve Sergeant, 20, was working as part of a clean up-crew removing the huge amounts of dust that accumulates during the ‘dry-end’ of the process.
Using conveyors the product is moved to huge storage silos prior to onward distribution by train or lorry.
Andrew Dewsbury, 26, was working in one of the main storage silo’s repairing machinery.
Jamie Cairns works as a ‘Ropeman’ and is part of the team responsible for the maintenance of and the movement of equipment down the main shaft and into the mine.
One of a number of different potash product types that is produced at Boulby.
4 – TRANSPORTATION TO TEES DOCKS
The final product can then be transported by lorry to other locations and clients around the country…
Much of it is transported by freight train to the docks at Teesside. Here a driver checks his brakes and load before leaving the sidings at Boulby with a train loaded
with salt product. In this case each of the train cars was holding around 62 tons.
The train leaves the sidings at Boulby heading for Tees Dock.
A potash train passes under a bridge as it travels through Saltburn on route to Tees Dock.
5 – TEES DOCK
Whether it is potash or salt product the facility at Tees dock allows for thousands of tons to be held there as it waits for container ships to arrive for loading.
In the picture above there is approximately 6, 300 tons of Potash in this single pile alone. This pile is one of many within this silo which can hold 60, 000 tons when full.
Many thousands of tons of salt product are also stockpiled outside next to the River Tees.
As the container ships come alongside ‘large ship loaders’ are used to fill the waiting vessels. The one in these pictures was the ‘Willeke’ and bound for Amsterdam.
The following week another ship is due in for loading which is bound for Brazil and which will take the potash to a final destination to be used on crops as fertiliser.
With thanks to Cleveland Potash Limited for the access to the mine and facilities and to the staff and guides who helped with the organisation of the visit.
PHOTOGRAPHY and EQUIPMENT
This job was always going to present some technical challenges photographically with the main one being light or rather the lack of. At many of the places underground the only light source is the lamp attached to the hard hat. Occasionally fluorescent lighting is used in certain areas but these were rare. Knowing or rather anticipating that it was going to be dusty I was reluctant to use flash as the light might have reflected back off the dust floating around and would have made the pictures look like they were taken in a snow or sand storm!
So I decided against using flash and to make use of the available lighting and try and create a bit of atmosphere with the pictures. The only separate light source I used on both days was a Metz LED light containing 72 LED’s and is about the size of an iPhone only a little bit thicker. It was light and very portable and runs off 4 x AA batteries and gives out a decent amount of light. It comes with a CTO (Colour Temperature Orange) filter that attaches easily to the front of the light and it helps to warm up some of the portraits nicely and gave a reasonable amount of light for wider shots. All the ‘people’ portraits in this post where lighting has been used were shot with this light either hand held to one side of the camera or placed on a small table-top tripod. It proved to be a very useful light and one that I’ll now use more often. The control switch on the back allowed for the strength of the light to be dialed up and down depending on the distance to the subject so it offered great flexibility. Occasionally the lamp worn on the hard hat could also be used to aim some light onto the subject.
The environment underground gets hotter (around 38c or so) the closer you travel to the working face and is obviously very dusty. In the surface production areas it ranges from incredibly dusty at the ‘Dry-end‘ of the potash production to humid and very wet conditions with water dripping down from pipework and other structures in the ‘Wet-end‘ of that process. When I went underground all I used was a Fuji X Pro 1 with the 18mm f2 lens. This lens equates to about a 28mm lens in 35mm terms. It was light and can be operated with one hand (useful when I was holding the LED light) and it turns out good quality images at higher ISO’s which were obviously needed in the low light. A quick check through my underground pictures shows the lowest ISO used was 1250 and the highest ISO used was 6400. Average shutter speeds were low and ranged between 15th – 30th of a second in many cases up to around 125th – 250th give or take when there was a bit more light. So it was challenging to keep them sharp and avoid movement in some cases….although creatively that can work in your favour at times.
The camera kit I used during both days is pictured below with a list of what’s what and most of it is self explanatory. Although I opted out of taking the Leica underground partly because it doesn’t perform well at high ISO’s and also I didn’t want to end up damaging it! Deciding it was too expensive to risk but ironically my cameras were in a dirtier state and took more of a battering after shooting the surface pictures the day before and apart from a good coating of dust it wasn’t too bad when I went underground.
All in all I was pleased with the performance of the Fuji. I know they’re good cameras (I’ve just sold all my Nikon D3S kit and replaced it with another fuji – the XT1) but I was keen to see how it performed in a more challenging photographic environment and it did well. The Leica is a good bit of kit which I use on most jobs so I knew that would work well on the surface but I was also particularly impressed with the LED light.
Standard clothing and PPE required when you go underground
(Clockwise from top) Belt with two Domke pouches, Chamois leather, paint brush, blower brush, LED on small tripod,
SD cards in the orange ‘Think Tank’ wallet, notebook and pencils, spare batteries in another ‘Think Tank’ wallet,
Leica M9 with 50mm f2 Summicron lens and a Fuji XPro 1 with 18mm (28MM) f2 lens.
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Images copyright Ian Forsyth / Getty Images