ROCK SPRINGS — Despite facing economic setbacks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, two local trona mine representatives are confident the industry is recovering and they expect that trend to continue as both plants prepare for expansions.
The Sweetwater Economic Development Coalition (SEDC) hosted a panel discussion last week to allow for local industry, education, and county leaders to discuss Sweetwater County’s economic future. During the panel discussion, local trona mine representatives shared that the soda ash industry is starting to turn around after being impacted by the pandemic.
David Caplan, Director of Communications for Genesis Alkali, said trona is pretty stable and they are coming out of the worst two years the industry had seen in 20 years. This was all due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were in a recession for the last two years. Our demand around the world, including the United States, almost completely evaporated. The reason for that is lockdowns in Asia, South America, and the United States,” Caplan said.
He said a lot of the soda ash produced at Genesis goes to making glass; and at least half of that helps the rest of the world produce glass, he said. Unfortunately, the company had to layoff both hourly and salary employees due to the recession, however, virtually all of those who were laid off are back two years later, Caplan said.
“Our sales and our demand are back to pre-pandemic levels…,” Caplan said. “In fact, we can’t make enough soda ash to supply what the world needs right now.”
Caplan said he’s excited to say they are about halfway through construction on the new Granger processing facility. The roughly $350 million project was stopped in 2019 and resumed after the pandemic. Right now, there are about 370 construction workers at the site and that could increase to as many as 400. A lot of those are staying in Sweetwater County during the construction.
When that plant is completed, which should be sometime early next year, an additional 120 permanent jobs will be available. Caplan said they have already hired people for most of those positions, which are high-skilled, high-paying jobs that will require extensive training. Once the plant is online and going to full capacity, the plant’s soda ash production will double. Caplan said they are currently making around 550,000 tons per year and most of that is going overseas.
“This product is going to be coming on the market at a time when demand is very high,” Caplan said.
This should allow the companies to get the product’s price levels back to where they were prior to the pandemic.
Craig Rood, director of public relations and government affairs for Sisecam (formerly Ciner), said COVID-19 was tough for everyone in the industry and Sisecam was fortunate that it didn’t have to layoff any employees or cut wages. Sisecam is a Turkish company which has 16 glass plants around the world and is the third largest glass producer in the world, Rood said.
“It was a very tough couple of years and even though the market is really good right now, it’s going to take a while to recover from those couple of years,” Rood said. “We essentially didn’t make soda ash for a year.”
In 1962, the Big Island Mine and Refinery started and recently celebrated its 60th anniversary. He said the Big Island Mine has been going through a lot of changes since Ciner bought OCI in 2015.
“We’ve been around for 60 years and we plan on being around a lot longer,” Rood said.
Rood said the new $5 billion Pacific project Sisecam is pursing is about 20 miles south of Green River will add about 600 new full-time jobs when it goes online. About three years ago, the company purchased purchased 17 sections of land that have trona in it. The trona is located a lot deeper in the ground and has a different ore body makeup in these sections of land, then what is currently being mined. This ore body is several layers of trona and various widths.
The advantage of doing solution mining is they can force the water underground, dissolve the trona, leave the dirt and insolubles underground behind, and then suck the trona water out, Rood explained. He said this project, however, is at the very beginning stages.
Western Wyoming Community College
Amy Murphy Western Wyoming Community College (Western) Dean of Outreach and Workforce Development said it’s an exciting time in education right now. She said they are working closely with local companies to see what kinds of workforce they need and develop programs to provide the workforce needed for these expansions. One of the partnerships is with Genesis, which has been successful in feeding Western graduates into the workforce.
According to Murphy, there is a shortage in the workforce because some retired, while others have chosen to pursue a different occupation.
However, that’s not the biggest challenge.
“The workforce wants a different workforce,” Murphy said. “They want it to be flexible. They want it to kind of conform to them, which is really difficult.”
The jobs available do not necessarily have the flexibility some residents are looking for. She said some occupations have set schedules. Western has been trying to educate students on what types of jobs are available and what those schedules might look like. Murphy said they are not only reaching out to their students, but high school and even junior high school students.
Sweetwater County Assessor Dave Divis wrapped up the panel discussion by showing attendees how all of this impacts Sweetwater County’s valuation. Because Sweetwater County is a mineral-reliant county it goes through booms and busts. When COVID-19 hit, the valuation dropped substantially, but he’s expecting that number to go back up this year. Natural gas and oil can vary a lot from year to year. For example: natural gas from 2015-2016 dropped $500 million all by itself.
Divis said throughout the years, trona has remained consistent and predictable at about $500 million each year, that is until the pandemic hit and trona dropped about 25 percent. It took a worldwide pandemic to shake the trona industry, Divis said. Divis believes the trona industry will not only bounce back, but exceed what it was making prior to the pandemic.
“That’s why I am so excited about the trona projects I just heard about,” Divis said.
All of the panelists agreed community partnerships are the key to moving Sweetwater County forward and they will continue to work together to make this happen.