Anyone who has ever worn glasses, looked through a window, drunk from a glass or washed a load of clothes likely has experienced the impact of Wyoming's biggest export, soda ash.
Dubbed the trona capital of the world, the Sweetwater County area of the Green River Basin boasts the world's largest deposit of the mineral, mined from the dry bed of an ancient lake once known as Lake Gosiute. Trona is refined into soda ash, a.k.a. sodium carbonate, which then is used as an essential ingredient for making glass, soaps and detergents, and a variety of other products.
Sweetwater County's trona industry contributes more than $1 billion annually to the economy. Its four primary companies in the industry – Tronox, Tata Chemicals, Solvay Minerals and Ciner Wyoming – employ more than 2,300 people, accounting for 10 percent of all jobs.
"Trona is to soda ash in much the same way that iron ore is to steel, and just as steel has many end uses, so does soda ash," says Sabaleel Nandy, Tata Chemicals vice president of manufacturing. "It is interesting that it isn't really visible in its end uses, such as in glass, yet it is all around you."
A Key Location
One reason the trona industry has been so lucrative for Sweetwater County is that there is an ample supply. Wyoming produced more than 18 million tons of trona in 2015, and fortunately there is more where that came from, says David Caplan, director of communications for Tronox.
"We've got ore supplies in the ground that haven't been mined yet," he says. "You can measure it in decades. We've got over 100 years of trona ore that's yet to be mined, so if you look out over the next two or three, four generations, it's going to be a very good industry for Southwest Wyoming."
Caplan says a second advantage Southwest Wyoming has in the industry is that the region's plentiful trona yields natural soda ash, which sets the bar for purity and quality.
"We produce what's called natural soda ash, and that natural soda ash is made from the trona rock itself – unlike throughout the rest of the world where soda ash is made through a synthetic process of blending chemicals together. Natural soda ash like ours takes far less energy and resources to produce," Caplan says. "A lot of our customers who like to think of themselves as green and sustainable like to use our product over the synthetic soda ash because it uses far less of the earth's resources, in terms of energy and so on."
Diving into the Talent Pool
Nandy and Caplan both say another major advantage for the industry is the availability of a skilled workforce.
Western Wyoming Community College, a two-year liberal arts and technical college, is the region's leading workforce provider. Through its Workforce Development program, WWCC works with the trona industry to ensure students are learning the required skills to succeed in the workplace. The college's $1.6 million Workforce Training Center, opened in 2014, features extra-large classrooms, workspace and state-of-the-art equipment donated by leaders in the oil, gas and trona industries. WWWC also offers customized employee training programs for mining companies.
“Western Wyoming Community College has worked with our regional trona industry partners for decades to ensure that necessary training and certifications required to work in the trona mines are available to current and prospective employees. Our Mine Safety and Health Administration classes saw over 1,000 participants in the 2015-16 school year,” says Dan Perusich, WWCC director of Workforce and Community Development. “More recently, Western has taken the lead in promoting the Work Ready Community initiative, which helps employers identify the most skilled employees in their region based on a series of tests that provides tangible results of a prospective employee's skill set.”
The impact of the trona community also can be felt and seen beyond employment and economic impact figures.
Nandy says that making a positive impact remains at the core of his Tata Chemicals' philosophy. Examples of this on the local level are employees' support of United Way, as well as the company establishing the Tata Chemicals' Wyoming Scholarship Program in 2013. So far, the program has awarded more than $26,000 in scholarship grants to dependents of company employees enrolled at local universities, including WWCC, the University of Wyoming and Casper College.
"We believe we have a very big responsibility to the communities where we are located, and it is our philosophy to give back many times over," Nandy says.