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Excavation started for polyhalite transportation tunnel

Tunnelling has begun on Sirius Minerals’ 37km underground mineral transportation system at Wilton International on Teesside.

When completed the tunnel will convey up to 20M.t a year of polyhalite ore, a natural mineral used as fertilizer, from the company’s new underground mine near Whitby, to a new processing and shipping facility on the River Tees.

Sirius Minerals expects to export £2.5bn worth of fertilizer every year at full capacity from a new purpose built processing plant and port at the old Redcar Steelworks, creating 1,000 direct long term jobs. Sirius expects to strike first polyhalite in 2021 and be producing 10M.t per annum by 2024.

“The start of the tunnelling marks another major milestone for this world class project,” said Sirius Minerials CEO Chris Fraser. “We’ve made great progress this year already, having broken ground here on Teesside in the summer and made great strides with the construction of Woodsmith Mine.”

The first 125m of the tunnel will be created with traditional tunnelling methods, before a tunnel boring machine (TBM) takes over for the rest of the 12.9km drive from Wilton.

Two more tunnel boring machines will be lowered into the ground at the mine and an intermediate site to drive the remaining 37km. The underground transportation system, linked to the mine, was chosen to avoid impacting the surface landscape of the local area.

“We are very proud of our innovative, low impact sustainable design, which has been part of the project’s DNA from day one,” said Fraser. “We are selling a unique, multi-nutrient fertilizer that can make a significant positive difference to farming practices and agricultural sustainability around the world. So it’s important that the project design delivered innovation and sustainability, giving us a world class project that the country can be proud of.”

A small ceremony took place at the site prior to the tunnel portal breakthrough to mark St Barbara’s day, the patron saint of miners and tunnellers.

Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council leader Sue Jeffrey sounded a horn to mark the start of excavation. She has agreed to act as the patron of the tunnel, a traditional ceremonial role in the industry, which oversees the welfare of all who are working underground.

“This project is going to bring jobs and economic benefits for this area for decades to come,” said Jeffrey. “I understand there are already up to 800 people working on the project and they expect around 1,700 people to have worked on its construction by the time it is built. It’s so important for Teesside and the whole North East to have companies like Sirius bringing long term investment that will make a significant difference to generations of people here.”

Earlier this year Sirius Minerals reported that the cost of developing its new polyhalite mine will rise by up to US$600M (£464M) due to increased scope of the tunnelling work, and the cost of the MTS has risen from US$858M (£664M) to US$1.46bn (£1.13bn) due to the addition of caverns to the tunnelling design and transfer of risk to the tunnelling contractor.

In May, GE visited the site. Read how developing the UK’s deepest tunnel and longest shafts has called for some innovative thinking and a flexible approach.

Last month GE went back to find out how the new mine is pushing the boundaries and setting some new UK records, as work progresses to sinking of the shafts for the scheme.

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