RIO BLANCO COUNTY - A nearly yearlong project to double the capacity of the Natural Soda sodium bicarbonate mining facility in Rio Blanco County, 50 miles north of Rifle, should be completed by the end of April, according to plant manager Bob Warneke.
"We are already running it at about a third of capacity," Warneke said of the expanded plant. "We hope to work toward proving its full capacity by the end of the third quarter of this year," meaning the end of September.
The expansion should nearly double the plant's manufacturing capacity to 250,000 tons annually. Previously, Warneke said, the plant was permitted to mine 125,000 tons per year, but got permission from regulators to extract slightly more than that.
Natural Soda is the second largest producer of sodium bicarbonate in North America. The product is used in a huge range of applications: it's made into baking soda and baking powder, used in products like toothpaste, added to animal feed and used for industrial processes.
To mine sodium bicarbonate, the company injects a so-called "liquor" of sodium bicarbonate and water into a deposit of nahcolite. The dissolved solution is then piped back into the factory, where it is crystallized into a powder form, refined and packaged for transport.
According to the company's website, the larger plant will help reduce bottlenecks during packaging and loading, and allow for the production of several new grades of sodium bicarbonate.
After being packaged on site, about half of the plant's product is loaded directly onto trucks for shipping, while the other half goes to a Rifle warehouse for storage and later shipment by truck and train.
Although construction of the new plant was managed by a Chicago-based contractor, it required the employment of somewhere between 50 and 100 temporary workers starting in May of last year, according to Warneke.
Some of those workers hailed from Rifle, Meeker, Rangely and elsewhere on the Western Slope, Warneke said, while others were brought in from the southeastern United States.
Of the 10 permanent workers hired to staff the expanded plant, two or three hail from the Rifle area, Warneke said.
Experimental oil shale project also progressing
Nahcolite deposits owned by Natural Soda sit immediately adjacent to large deposits of kerogen, also known as shale oil.
Natural Soda wants to develop those deposits, and last December the company received approval from the Bureau of Land Management to lease 160 acres near its sodium bicarbonate plant for an oil shale research facility.
Along with Natural Soda, Exxon Mobil, Shell Frontier and American Shale Oil are also developing experimental oil shale facilities in the area, according to BLM Public Affairs Specialist David Boyd.
American Shale Oil is furthest along in the process, Boyd said.
If the companies can develop an economical way of extracting oil shale within 10 years of the start of their experimental lease, they could be eligible to lease an additional 480 acres of federal land each to ramp up production, Boyd noted.
Warneke said Natural Soda is currently working on a development plan for their oil shale research facility, and hopes to submit the plan to the BLM by late summer.
After that, the company will begin work on designing the facility and assembling cost estimates for approval by its board of directors. The firm hopes to start construction of the research facility sometime in 2014.
If approved, the facility could create some additional jobs in the area, though Warneke said the oil shale project "will probably be relatively small scale compared to the expansion that we just went through."