Great Salt Lake Minerals company turns 40

Sep 17 2010 - 5:31pm

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OGDEN -- Mark Reynolds stood amid a sea of white that glittered to the horizon. He reached down and picked up a thimble-size lump of that white.

It's mostly potassium, he said, with salt and magnesium mixed in. "It tastes pretty bad," he admitted. "We call it 'bitter.' That's the magnesium."

Reynolds was standing in one of 47,000 acres of evaporation ponds west of Great Salt Lake Minerals refining facility on the shore of the lake. His full title is Sulfate of Potash Expansion and Capacity Manager and, even though he has worked only two years for GSL, he sees it as family.

His dad, Max Reynolds, was the general manager of the company for years.

"One Sunday my dad said, 'You want to take a ride?' We drove out onto the ponds and a 200-foot section of the dike had slid. The Great Salt Lake was flowing into the ponds."

That was May 5, 1983. After 13 years in operation, Great Salt Lake Minerals faced a crisis. Two years of heavy rains and snow runoff had raised the lake to heights not seen in 95 years. Utah had cut a hole in the Southern Pacific Railroad causeway to let water from the lake's higher south branch flow into the north. GSL opposed the breach because it would threaten its dikes, but the state went ahead.

GSL's ponds flooded, washing out two years of work. That's how long it takes evaporation to convert lake brine to finished product.

More than 300 people worked at GSL then. "They had voluntary layoffs and reduced time. It was a very difficult time," Reynolds said.

The parent company at the time -- Gulf Sulphur, a mining company -- wanted to close down GSL, but "my dad and Peter Behrens (the company president) told them no. They said we'll get insurance money, we'll rebuild."

Great Salt Lake Minerals, now owned by Compass Minerals, Kansas, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. The company really got its start 45 years ago when Lithium Corporation of America started testing lake water for lithium, a rare metal used in batteries.

Lithium was found, but recovering it was not economical. Dave Hyams, GSL spokesman, said German industrialists behind Lithium Corporation of America saw all the potassium sulfate and magnesium chloride they were getting, pretty much for free, and "decided this sucker might work." The first ponds went in in 1967.

The company opened a $10 million refining facility in 1968. Its first shipment, the event celebrated this year, went out in 1970.

GSL makes three chemical products: Salt, potassium sulfate, also called sulfate of potash, and magnesium chloride. Most production work is done by the sun, with final processing of the potash and magnesium chloride in a refinery.

Production is simple: Lake brine is put into a pond and the water allowed to evaporate. As the water dries out, salt crystals form.

When most of the salt crystallizes out, the remaining brine is moved to another pond and allowed to evaporate more until potassium sulfate crystallizes.

After that, the remaining brine contains magnesium chloride. The salt is sold for snow removal and water softeners and the magnesium chloride is used for road dust control.

The potassium sulfate is what the company brags about the most, because it is a big component of fertilizer.

"They started harvesting it and producing it about the time farmers and the university extension services started realizing potassium sulfate would be better for crops with roots," Hyams said, "and as farms changed over the last 40 years and yield became more important, the market just grew because we are the only American supplier."

Among other things, both Hyams and Reynolds stressed, is that GSL's product is organic and can be used to grow organic crops. It comes directly from the lake and has nothing added, "and while organic isn't a huge number, it's a significant segment and a very forward-looking segment," Hyams said.

As demand grew, GSL expanded.

In the early 1990s, Hyams said, company President Peter Behrens got state approval to set up evaporation ponds in the west shore of the lake's west arm north of the causeway. So little new water flows into that arm that salt concentrations are much higher.

The problem was how to get brine from those ponds to the refinery. Reynolds said company lore has it that "Behrens went away for a week and came back with some plans and said 'do it this way.'aC"

His idea was to dig an underwater trench across the floor of the lake's northwest arm, from the ponds to the tip of the southern Promontory Mountains. Concentrated brine from the evaporation ponds would flow downhill through that trench. The brine's density would prevent it from mixing with the lake water above. From Promontory Point it is pumped to the company's ponds near the refinery.

The brine takes 21 days to flow seven miles, Hyams said. Behren's solution to the problem was such a clever way to take advantage of the physics of salt water and the geography of Great Salt Lake that, he said, "there's nothing like it in the world."

For the last two years, the company has been improving and expanding its refinery to increase production, which now is 350,000 tons of potassium sulfate (potash), 600,000 tons of magnesium chloride, and 2 million tons of salt a year.

But to do so, it has to build more evaporation ponds. GSL has 47,000 acres of ponds. The company is applying to Utah for rights to another 91,000 acres.

That expansion worries environmentalists. They are concerned overuse will severely damage Great Salt Lake's environmental quality and threaten bird populations. A consortium of lake advocacy groups, led by Friends of Great Salt Lake, has filed several legal actions seeking to block the application.

Hyams admits those actions could drag on for years. "We're still working with the Corps (of Engineers) and the EPA and the state agencies. It's a very complicated proposal. The environmental impact statement is not even completed as a draft yet."

While all that happens, the company, which contributes $65 million a year to the local economy and employs 350 people, will keep doing what it does.

Summer is the peak evaporation period, and autumn is harvest time.

On Wednesday, Reynolds stood on one of the dried-out evaporation ponds where the drying potassium sulfate is plowed into hedgerows waiting to be loaded onto an endless stream of trucks flowing past.

Around him, the potassium, mixed with salt, seemed to extend as far as the eye could see, a sea of white that looks like snow but is only slightly cool to the touch, damp to stand on and bitter to taste.

"Can you imagine the vision?" he said. "To stand here amid mud flats and see the possibility of all this?"

Although, actually, they didn't. Those original guys were looking for lithium, the one thing they ended up not wanting.

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