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The Richards Bay Coal Terminal (RBCT) last year exported its lowest volume of coal since 1996.

In exporting 58.72-million tons of coal, RBCT was 11-million tons down on what it achieved in 2020 and 18-million tons down on its 77-million-ton budget for the 2021 year.

The target for the upcoming 2022 is 70-million tons.

Of the 11-million tons that RBCT was down on last year, 1.8-million tons can be ascribed to two overall value-chain shuts totalling 19 days compared with the normal year’s ten days.

In other words, RBCT was 9-million tons down on operational matters impacting the value chain.

“It’s not one of those easy announcements to make for RBCT and Transnet in this year. Just to put it on the table – 2021 has been a very difficult year,” said RBCT chairperson Nosipho Damasane during Tuesday’s media briefing covered by Mining Weekly.

The biggest challenge experienced as a value chain was receiving coal from the coal mines.

Cable theft has been a significant matter in terms of what the coal line has been dealt with, and we’ve seen that on a daily, weekly basis throughout the course of last year. Loco availability has been a challenge,” said RBCT CEO Alan Waller. 

“We have been working on a continuous basis from a terminal point of view as well as from an industry point of view, in partnership with Transnet Freight Rail (TFR), to understand how we can work together to understand what these challenges are and how we can contribute where required to assist in trying to improve the overall efficiencies. We have worked together on security issues and that process kicked off in October last year,” said Waller.

“We have definitely seen some gains and the true gains we’ve only started seeing now in January. The result where we find ourselves at this stage is that it’s really what the industry has brought to the party as additional resources.

“We have partnered with existing service providers that TFR use and at this stage industry and existing service providers, and the increased capacity that has been put on the line, are looking at the night shift on the security of the 750 km of the coal line. This doesn’t go all the way through to the Waterberg. It just goes to the Mpumalanga area, and we’re covering that in terms of the six-to-six shift at night, and then Transnet have doubled up on their security service providers on the day shift.

“We definitely, in January, are seeing some significant improvements in this regard, but it is a continuous battle and there are initiatives that are ongoing, still within the security area, to look at how we improve the issue. But it is a battle that we are winning at this stage,” said Waller.

Damasane emphasised the importance of the partnership that RBCT has had with TFR and Transnet National Ports Authority since 2012, with joint initiatives resulting in claw back and corridor recovery.

Located in KwaZulu-Natal, RBCT, which loaded only 645 vessels in 2021 compared with 907 in 2017, is owned by a consortium of shareholding coal companies. The terminal received coal from 65 collieries, with ten active junior miners contributing 3.5-million tons. Four-million tons of RBCT’s 91-million ton capacity is allocated to junior miners in terms of a programme guided by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy.

Vessel turnaround time moved out from 34 hours to 39 hours, partially influenced by vessel sizes. The increased number of Cape-sized vessels in 2021 assists with the efficiency of the terminal and is favoured, but they take slightly longer to load. Cape-sized vessels have risen to half from 39%.

RBCT has 98 stockpiles of coal at the terminal and with the low stock levels it was having to clear up to 25 stockpiles a month, whereas the 77-million-ton rate normally involves clearing about 15 stockpiles a month.

“Although the terminal per se is not affected by all that’s happening, it obviously does have an impact in terms of the operational efficiency that the terminal has, and as a terminal, we need to adapt accordingly to meet those efficiency requirements,” Waller said.

More than 86% of the coal exported in 2021, or 50.7-million tons, went to the Asian countries of India, Pakistan and China; under the African heading, 5.3%, or 3.1-million tons, was exported to Mauritius and Morocco; under the Middle East heading, 4.3%, or 2.5-million tons, went to United Arab Emirates and Israel; and under the European heading 4%, or 2.3-million tons, went to the Netherlands and Italy.