Construction is due to start soon on a $30 million expansion of the Natural Soda sodium bicarbonate mining operation in Rio Blanco County, 50 miles northwest of Rifle. That will mean jobs for Rifle area construction workers, and the chance of landing some of the up to 10 permanent jobs when the project is done.Officials, including Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, held a groundbreaking ceremony on Monday, May 21, to launch the expansion project.Bob Warneke, vice president of operations at the plant, said the construction project will provide work for around 60 contractors. Many of those workers will be bused to the Natural Soda site from Rifle, Meeker and Rangely, he said.Of the company's current 40 permanent workers, eight live in the Rifle area."Historically, we have had more workers from Rio Blanco County, which is what you'd expect," he said.The company has a warehouse in Rifle that stores baking soda for shipment by truck and train, Warneke said.Workers load the baking soda onto some 30 rail cars for shipment to customers, Warneke said.Natural Soda is the second largest producer of sodium bicarbonate in North America. The company produces the product on its more than 9,400 acres of nahcolite leases. The company injects hot water deep underground, dissolving the nahcolite, returning the saturated brine to the surface and recrystallizing pure sodium bicarbonate crystals as the hot brine is cooled. The expansion will double the plant's capacity by 250,000 tons per year and is scheduled to be finished by Nov. 15, Warneke said, so the new plant can be commissioned and start delivering baking soda by the first of the year.Rifle Mayor Jay Miller said once the project is complete, Rifle area residents may be hired for a permanent job."And those who live somewhere else may still come to Rifle to shop, eat and watch a movie," Miller added. "We've seem some increase in visitors, so anything significant like this helps."Warneke said, despite the recession of the last two years, sales of baking soda have grown."We're fortunate to have a manufacturing process that's the lowest cost in the industry," Warneke said. "We've been able to grow both sales and volume to capacity, so that's what led us to believe we should expand."Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper called the groundbreaking "a happy day.""We're just starting to come out of the recession, so this couldn't come at a better time," Hickenlooper said. "This is a classic case of an industry recognizing how to go in and do things the right way to grow and protect the environment."
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