EXCAVATION work has started on Sirius Minerals’ 23 mile underground mineral transportation system at Wilton International on Teesside.

Up to 20 million tonnes a year of polyhalite ore, a natural mineral used as fertilizer, will travel through the tunnel from the underground mine near Whitby, to a processing plant on the banks of the River Tees.

The company expects to export £2.5bn worth of fertilizer every year at full capacity from a new purpose built facility in the shadows of the old Redcar Steelworks, creating 1,000 direct long term jobs. It expects to strike first polyhalite in 2021 and be producing 10m tonnes per year by 2024.

Work on the tunnel begins

Chris Fraser, CEO of Sirius Minerals, said: “The start of the tunnelling marks another major milestone for this world class project. 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 eight mile 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 23 miles.

“We are very proud of our innovative, low impact sustainable design, which has been part of the project’s DNA from day one,” he added. “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.”

Workers on the site for the start of work

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.

Councillor Sue Jeffrey, leader of Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council has agreed to act as the patron of the tunnel, a traditional ceremonial role in the industry, which oversees the welfare of all who work underground.

“This project is going to bring jobs and economic benefits for this area for decades to come,” she said. “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 North East to have companies bringing long term investment that will make a significant difference to generations of people here.”