RBC I Blanco County locals are well aware of the county’s rich history of mineral extraction. However, few know the true rare gem located in Piceance Creek, the only known large deposit of nahcolite, or natural sodium bicarbonate, in the world.
Approximately 14 miles south of Highway 64, along County Road 5 in the Piceance Creek area, sits the Natural Soda mine, where, according to Natural Soda President Sara Schaeffner, they extract nine grades of the purest form of sodium bicarbonate in the world.
Schaeffner, and Energi Group, the parent company that owns Natural Soda, have big plans for the mine.
At a recent meeting, Schaeffner told local government officials that “within 10 years we will disrupt the global sodium bicarbonate market with the resources here in Northwest Colorado.”
One way to accomplish this is by expanding current operations.
Natural Soda is in the final stages of an application process with the BLM to double their production to 500,000 tons per year, effectively making them the largest stand-alone facility in the world.
All with what Schaeffner calls a “very low environmental foot print.”
The mine is not waiting idly by for permits, instead using the down time to work on engineering and technical designs of the mine.
In addition to increased production, the expansion will also mean in an increase in jobs.
The mine, which currently employs roughly 75 workers, hopes to add another 15 to 20 full time jobs with the expansion. These jobs will be wide ranging, covering everything from financial analysts to operators, engineers and plant maintenance specialists.
The company plans to begin advertising some of these positions as early as next summer.
Growing production is nothing new to the Natural Soda plant. In 2013, the facility was expanded to its current level.
Extracting the nahcolite involves pumping hot water into the ground to dissolve the mineral. It is then pumped to the processing plant, where the nahcolite is crystallized, dried, graded and packaged.
The brine, or water that is left from the process, is then recycled back into the now-reduced nahcolite deposit, filling the empty seam.
According to Energi Group, this process results “in an environmentally responsible zero discharge operation.”
The final product, sodium bicarbonate, is exported to nearly 20 countries spanning six continents. It is used for many things including as an additive to dairy cattle feed, water treatment, ceramics and plastics and as food-grade baking soda.
The baking soda from the local Natural Soda Mine can be found in many grocery stores packaged as Bob’s Red Mill Baking Soda. A fast-growing recently developed use is in flue gas treatment.
According to Energi Group, the product acts as a dry sorbent to remove harmful gases and other pollutants—created by burning fossil fuels—from the air.
As a local mineral extraction business, Natural Soda contributes to the economy in several ways.
Rio Blanco County Economic Development Coordinator Katelin Cook said that in 2014, Natural Soda paid $217,304.52 in Rio Blanco taxes. Additionally, the company paid $643,858.92 in federal mineral lease payments or severance taxes, of which the county gets back a large portion.
Approximately 60 percent of the Natural Soda workforce resides within Rio Blanco County.
Natural Soda also participates in several community organizations and recently started working with Meeker’s “Community Counts” program for the Meeker Hospital Building Fund. The company also offers scholarships for high school students and participates in the Meeker Range Call parade.
Energi Group is hopeful that the expansion project will, depending on final design decisions and permitting processes, be commissioned in late 2016 or early 2017.