Environmentalists fear Salt Lake mining plans

By Jorn Madslien
Business reporter, BBC News, Great Salt Lake, Utah

Image caption,
GSL Minerals' evaporation ponds cover some 43,000 acres on the shores of the Great Salt Lake at the foothills of the Wasatch mountain range in Utah

The grazing bison, silhouetted against the almost black-and-white landscape, is a welcome sign of life on Antelope Island - the largest in Utah's Great Salt Lake.

Swarms of persistent gnats and brine flies attract migratory waterfowl to these salt-lined shores, but any other living creatures here are finding it a harsh, inhospitable place.

Even the bison herd that is roaming the island's barren mountains was brought here, more than a century ago, by an entrepreneur who wanted to charge for the right to hunt them.

But if life seems tough on the island, it is even tougher in the salty waters that surround it - waters that, with the exception of the resilient brine shrimp, are devoid of life.

Utah environmentalist and writer Terry Tempest Williams describes the Great Salt Lake as "the liquid lie of the West".

And yet, against all odds, America's Dead Sea has become a source of wealth for many of the people who live along the lake's southern and eastern shores.

Natural wealth

In Weber County, a single-track road links Interstate-15 to the shores of the lake, past grazing long-horn cattle and farms with old, canvas-covered prairie wagons or modern RVs - mobile homes - parked in their drives.

Image caption,
GSL Minerals has been operating here for four decades

Here, to the west of the city of Ogden and the Wasatch mountain range, sandwiched in between two of the lake's many waterfowl sanctuaries, the low-rise industrial operations of Great Salt Lake Minerals Corporation lie tucked away at the side of a small hill, aptly known as Little Mountain.

GSL Minerals is essentially a mining operation that extracts salt, sulfate of potash, and magnesium-chloride from the lake's brine.

The process is basic. The salty, mineral-rich lake water - or brine - is pumped into vast, shallow evaporation ponds that cover some 43,000 acres, leaving the sun to do much of the work.

"At various times of the evaporation process, each of those minerals crystalise and drop to the bottom," explains GSL Minerals spokesman Dave Hyams.

Enhancing growth

Image caption,
Environmentalists fear industrial expansion could threaten waterfowl

The end result is satisfying for the people who work here as it turns out this lifeless lake has become a great source of growth elsewhere.

Potassium sulfate is very versatile. Most of it is used as organic specialty fertiliser to grow vegetables, fruits and nuts, though some is even used in the cosmetics and pharmaceuticals industry, or it is mixed in with ceramics or into plaster boards to speed up the drying process.

"And this is the only naturally occurring source of sulphate of potash in North America," points out Mr Hyams.

The magnesium-chloride, meanwhile, is a nutrient used by wheat and corn growers, while some of the salt from the lake is used on roads to melt ice, as water softener, or as salt lick blocks for cattle.

Though most of the salt is poured back into the lake, Mr Hyams explains, as there is no market for it.

More ponds

GSL Minerals' activities have helped transform many of the local people's view of the lake, which is now widely seen as a cash-cow providing jobs, tax earnings and profits.

So as demand for its organic fertiliser from a growing agricultural sector continues to rise, GSL Minerals says it wants to build more evaporation ponds in the north-eastern corner of the lake.

"People are turning to healthier foods such as fruit and vegetables rather than wheat and corn, so demand for our potassium sulfate is set to at least double and perhaps even treble over the next four decades," explains Mr Hyams.

GSL Minerals' plan would result in the company doubling its footprint here.

"The proposed expansion would add approximately 91,000 acres of solar evaporation ponds," according to a US Army Corps of Engineers study of the potential impact on the environment of GSL Minerals' proposal, though Mr Hyams insists that figure includes some double counting and that the actual acreage would be 75,000.

Environmental risks

GSL Minerals has operated in Great Salt Lake, alongside the lake's birdlife, for four decades. Its operations are not in themselves polluting and the salt and minerals it extract are constantly replenished by the rivers that feed the lake.

So it is not surprising that the authorities here have largely welcomed the additional 70 or so jobs the expansion plan would add to its 330-strong workforce, along with the additional $10m per year it would contribute through property tax and mineral royalties.

But environmentalists are nevertheless concerned, insisting that the plans to expand the evaporation ponds pose a potential threat to a fragile ecosystem.

GSL Minerals' expansion would result in more water being pumped from the lake, thus resulting in a 2-3 feet drop in water levels, according to the campaign group Friends of the Great Salt Lake.

Lower water means reduced shoreline, thus more crowding and a greater risk of disease and predator access for the bird population, according to Daniel Bedford, associate professor in the geography department at Weber State University.

Indeed, GSL Minerals' activities could even result in the lake's salt levels rising," warns Professor Bedford observes in a paper published in the journal Environment.

In turn, this could result in a clash with "Utah's multi-million dollar brine shrimp industry, which harvests brine shrimp eggs [from the lake] for sale to commercial aquaculture operations", he says.

"Although brine shrimp are extraordinarily hardy, their numbers might be reduced if lake salinities rise enough," he reasons.

Scarce water

But perhaps it is the stench that mixes with the briny air as it blows in from Farmington Bay, just north of Salt Lake City's international airport, that give the clearest indication of the risks involved in messing with the lake's delicate ecosystem.

The bay is is "in effect, a sewage lagoon upwind of a growing urban population", according to Professor Bedford.

Nevertheless, property developers are planning to build a new mini-city on some 19,000 acres of land to the west of the bay - an area described as "moonscape-looking marshland" by the newspaper Salt Lake Tribune and as "unliveable and unbreathable" by environmentalists quoted in the paper - to facilitate an influx of people that could see the population along the lake's shores double over the next few decades.

Such urban sprawl is part of "a creeping environmental problem, Professor Bedford observes.

"The lake is at risk from population growth and climate change, and a persistent failure to see it as anything other than a source of industrial raw materials at best and a waste of water at worst," he warns.

More people means more water will need to be diverted away from the rivers that currently feed the lake to fill up bathtubs, to water lawns and farmland, or to cool down power stations - and so the lake's levels drop, a process further escalated by rising temperatures that speed up evaporation from the lake, Professor Bedford reasons.

More people also means more pollution, much of which tends to ends up in a lake with a reduced ability to dilute it.

"As water levels drop, any pollutants or salts in the water will become more concentrated," Professor Bedford warns, while ever more exposed lake bed could result in more dust blowing over new settlements along the current shoreline.

In short, warns Mr Bedford: "Managing water primarily or exclusively for its economic value can be environmentally disastrous."

Global concerns

Mr Hyams agrees that it is right to be cautious, though he points out that its expansion would take place over a period of four decades with regular reviews between the different stages.

Besides, he continues, the new ponds would be in the north-west part of the lake where, he insists, there is no life.

"There is nothing there," he says. "No shrimps, no birds, no plants, no bugs."

"I think you have to look at water usage and resource usage in a comprehensive way," he reasons.

"But this must also be seen in the context of the growing demand for food. Replacing our organic fertiliser with chemical varieties could have a greater global impact on the environment than what we are planning to do here."

More on this story

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.