Mammoth mining tool takes overnight ride through Texas

HOUSTON — Workers in Conroe hauled a colossal, 63.4-metric ton dragline excavator — essentially, a giant shovel — overnight Tuesday to a coal mine near Austin.

The 130-mile trip to Elgin was the maiden voyage in the U.S. for South African equipment maker VR Steel, which four months ago outsourced the fabrication of its first U.S. excavator to Conroe-based manufacturers C&C Metals and Mackanan.

The midnight ride took seven hours: Crew members on escort trucks lifted power lines and moved traffic lights to clear the way for the excavator, which sat 18 feet high on the back of a semi-trailer. After a “bit of a slow trip,” slowing but never fully stopping traffic, the excavator arrived at its new home at 4:30 a.m. Wednesday, said Johan van Jaarsveld, a vice president of sales and manufacturing for VR Steel.

Two of the South African company’s engineers are expected to sign off on the device next week, enabling it to start chomping earth as early as the evening of Dec. 11.

VR Steel, which has a fleet of around 30 draglines scattered around the globe, is establishing a foothold in the Houston area, and plans to fabricate more mining tools in Conroe, using parts shipped from its warehouses in South Africa.

The region’s access to shipping lines linking South Africa and the Port of Houston was a big sell, and though the company will fabricate some equipment at remote U.S. mining locations, its Conroe business should “grow tremendously,” said van Jaarsveld.

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Bastrop County, which includes the town of Elgin, has 13 lignite coal mining sites, among the largest concentrations of lignite in the state, according to the Texas Railroad Commission.

It took two cranes to hoist the monster onto the back of a semi-trailer Tuesday afternoon.

The dragline bucket is expected to attach to a mining crane next week in a construct resembling a long-necked dinosaur, with the excavator as its head — taking big bites out of the earth to mine coal: It’s part wrecking ball, part scooper.

Its maw is four-fifths the size of the largest dragline buckets in the world. It’s five times heavier than the legendary Big Muskie, an Ohio specimen that reigned as the largest from the late 1960s to the early 1990s.

The Conroe manufacturers hired about 10 more employees to work day and night shifts to finish putting the bucket together, and the companies may add 40 to 50 jobs in Conroe next year to fill more orders for big mining tools, Jaarsveld said.

The next excavator is scheduled for fabrication in Conroe early next year, and VR Steel is drawing up plans to construct excavators that can dig up 120 cubic yards of earth — a volume just shy of the largest excavators on the planet.

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