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Sweetwater County, WY Economy Bolstered by Trona

Ore mining industry generates billions

By Kevin Litwin on August 12, 2014

OCI Trona Plant, in Green River, WY
Rock Springs / Michael D. Tedesco

Among Sweetwater County’s many natural assets is a large bed of trona, created by the disappearance of an ancient lake. This geological phenomenon is a major root in the area’s economy, providing thousands of jobs.

Trona is an ore extracted from underground mines and refined into soda ash for products such as baking soda, glass bottles, flat glass for cars, detergents, toothpaste and fiberglass insulation. FMC, OCI, Solvay Chemicals, and Tata Chemicals are trona companies operating in Southwestern Wyoming, home to the world’s-largest underground deposit of natural trona ore.

Trona is profitable, too, with the total value of its production in 2013 estimated at $1.8 billion, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

“Trona is the cornerstone base industry in Sweetwater County and a global product, with about 53 percent of trona staying in the U.S. and the other 47 percent shipped overseas,” says Dave Hanks, CEO of the Rock Springs Chamber of Commerce. “The industry employs about 10 percent of all workers in Sweetwater County.”

Hanks adds that jobs in trona mining are high paying.

“Employees can earn about $100,000 with a few years experience,” he says. “Sweetwater County has other extraction-based industries like oil and gas, uranium, a power plant and a fertilizer plant, but trona is our largest sector.”

Long-term Employment

The reserves in Sweetwater County are immense, with drilling expected to last at least to the year 2100. Joel Burbank, human resources manager at OCI Wyoming, points out that because trona is so lucrative for companies and employees alike, workers tend to remain in the industry for many years.

“At our company banquet we held in September 2014, we recognized 11 employees who have worked for OCI for 40 years,” Burbank says. “Another 27 have been with the company for 35 years and one employee for 30.”

He says such loyalty speaks not only to the industry but the overall quality of life in Sweetwater County.

“The Green River and Rock Springs communities have strong partnerships with all the trona producers, with Sweetwater County being a good place to have a family and a business,” Burbank says. “I think that’s why many people stay with companies for 30 to 40 years.”

More Employees Needed

Fred von Ahrens, manufacturing director at FMC Corp., says the trona industry features good, safe, environmentally conscious, innovative companies where employees earn good livings. However, the baby boomers will start retiring soon, and the industry needs more employees.

“Trona companies will be here for a long, long time and are looking to do everything they can to explore growth opportunities, but we must attract more employees,” he says. “Several initiatives are in place.”

For example, von Ahrens says FMC hires every mechanic who completes a 15-month industrial training program offered by Western Wyoming Community College.

“We also have several chemical and electrical engineer interns from the University of Wyoming, and many of them are eventually hired on a full-time basis,” he says. “Trona is here to stay, and so are great jobs and an excellent quality of life.”

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