Open Spaces
4:23 pm
Fri August 2, 2013

Thriving trona industry could face threats from environmental regulations

FMC Corporation
Credit Lee James

Trona mining is a widely forgotten part of the state’s extraction industries. But in Sweetwater County, it’s a big deal. Just west of Green River, there’s a hidden labyrinth of tunnels far below I-80. And the industry is a major part of the county’s economy. But some worry that environmental issues could be a major burden for trona mining. Amanda Le Claire has more.

AMANDA LE CLAIRE: You probably use a product made with trona nearly every day. Soda ash, which is made from trona, is a vital ingredient in the production of glass, from bottles to window panes, to light bulbs and even the screen on your smart phone. You likely also have it in your kitchen in the form of baking soda.  This area of the Green River Basin happens to be the world’s biggest and purest deposit of trona and a company called FMC has been mining here since the 1950s.

(Ambient mine sounds)

Fred von Ahrens is the Manufacturing Director for FMC’s Green River operation.  He’s allowed me to take a tour of the underground mining operation with a guide. We’re going more than 1500 feet below ground to see one of the largest trona mines in the nation. It’s warm and humid down here and seemingly endless tunnels continue as far as the eye can see. Large stalactites made of trona hang from overhead, which turn immediately into powder when touched. There’s white trona dust everywhere.

In fact, Von Ahrens says there’s so much trona here that the company is planning to continue mining operations into the next century.

FRED VON AHRENS: “The trona is a natural resource that we have over 75 years of mine reserves just in hard rock mining and much more beyond that. We’re going to be in this community for a long, long time to come.” 

(More ambient mining noise)

LE CLAIRE: Trona is one of Sweetwater County’s most stable sources of jobs and revenue and Von Ahrens says the market is expected to grow steadily over the next few years. The trona industry also rarely experiences severe economic ups and downs, like you get in oil, gas, and coal mining. So it’s a significant cornerstone of Sweetwater’s economy. Wally Johnson is the chairman of the board of commissioners in Sweetwater County. He says that when the trona mines began to open more than 60 years ago, the county badly needed a new industry.

WALLY JOHNSON: “Fortunately the trona industry came on stream just as the coal mines, the underground coal mines were phasing out. So it was very opportune that trona was being developed at the appropriate time in the early 50s.”

LE CLAIRE: But he says the industry faces two potential environmental hurdles in the near future. One is that sage grouse are being considered for the Endangered Species List.

JOHNSON: “If the sage grouse gets listed as an Endangered Species with roughly 38% of Sweetwater County as core habitat, that would have a very detrimental effect, I believe, on the potential of developing the minerals that exist in those areas.”

LE CLAIRE:  That’s because trona mining operations can disturb prime sage grouse habitat.

The second potential hurdle that the industry is facing has to do with air quality. The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a regional haze management plan to address visibility issues. It would require local utilities to spend more than 1 billion dollars to retrofit pollution control devices on coal-fired power plants. That might not affect trona mining right away … but Johnson says he’s worried this could be the first step toward additional requirements that WOULD affect the industry. He adds that he believes the extraction industries, including trona, are partially responsible for the air pollution that’s decreasing visibility, but he says there’s a much bigger cause that the EPA is ignoring- wildfires.

Steve Dietrich is the DEQ’s Air Quality Division Administrator. His department has been taking the lead on talks between the state and the EPA.

STEVE DIETRICH: “Regional haze is not a health-based program. It’s all about visibility in class 1 areas. One of the bigger areas that we concentrated on is that the bigger contributor to regional haze, especially in western states and certainly in Wyoming is from wildfires.”

LE CLAIRE: Still, state officials say they expect the debate over haze management to continue for the foreseeable future. Back at the Green River mine, Von Ahrens explains that FMC is careful to address the environmental issues being created by trona mining, like building wildlife-friendly fences for nesting sage grouse. He says his biggest concern is more immediate.

VON AHRENS: “Bringing talent in to grow the business is really my number one challenge.”  

LE CLAIRE: And with 7.6% unemployment nationwide, that’s good news for job seekers.

For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Amanda Le Claire in Rock Springs.