Natural Soda, Colowyo topics of AGNC meeting

RANGELY I Government authorities from all over Northwestern Colorado converged on Rangely May 27 for a monthly meeting of the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado (AGNC), which looked at a variety of topics.

Various representatives from local governments listened to presentations and participated in discussions on topics of local importance ranging from expansion of the Natural Soda Plant, sage grouse and updates on state legislation.
Local representation included Rangely Town Manager Peter Brixius, Mayor Frank Huitt and Rangely Town Council members Lisa Hatch and Kristin Steele. Tim Webber represented the Western Rio Blanco Recreation District and also in attendance was Katelin Cook, Rio Blanco County’s economic development coordinator, the mayors of Grand Junction, Rifle and Fruita as well as the county commissioners from Garfield, Moffat and Routt counties, who gave voice to their communities.
Additionally, U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton had aides in attendance.
One of the primary roles of AGNC is to act as a grant recipient for the Dinosaur Welcome Center and the Area Agency on Aging. As part of this responsibility, the group hears regular updates from both agencies and helps to determine funding and future projects.
Cheryl McDonald, manager of the Dinosaur Welcome Center, told the group that “tourism is our business, so we’ll do everything we can to help.”
McDonald said tourism in the area has gotten off to a good start this season as visits to Dinosaur National Monument are up 58 percent from this time in 2014.
The area should see additional boosts later in the season as they gear up for several exciting events including the rebirth of a hang gliding event from Aug. 30 to Sept. 5. McDonald said approximately 150 hang gliders and their families are expected to come and take the plunge off the monument.
Also in the fall will be the 50th anniversary celebration of Dinosaur National Monument. McDonald expects both events to boost the communities through visitor hotel stays, restaurant meals and shopping expenditures.
The Area Agency on Aging, represented by Dave Norman, works to provide financial resources to local entities that provide senior citizen services. Norman said the agency will give $1.9 million in grants during 2015 to help provide services such as home health care, transportation, nutrition, day care and insurance counseling.
Rio Blanco, Moffat and Routt counties will receive a combined total of $418,173 for their numerous programs.
Dianna Orf, an attorney and lobbyist, and her son, Richard Orf, updated the group on several legislative issues currently unfolding at the state level. Orf described this legislative season, which ends June 1, as encouraging, saying there has been an increased emphasis on rural Colorado communities and the Western Slope.
One of the largest concerns brought up was the future of the Colowyo Coal Mine, which has recently been under fire from the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.
The Air Quality Control Commission will hold a public meeting in Craig the evening of June 18 to seek public input on what the impacts of potential new regulations on the mine could be.
Many members of AGNC expressed that the attack on the Colowyo Mine is just the latest in an overall campaign against the energy industries, including oil and gas. This sentiment was reiterated when Orf informed the group that there is currently a pact of Colorado ski town government officials petitioning the federal government for a change in the way fees are assessed on the energy industry, believing that, as a cause of Global Climate Change, those fees should be increased.
The theme of natural resource development continued into the meeting with a presentation from Sara Schaeffner, the CEO and President of Enirgi Group, which owns Natural Soda Inc.
The Natural Soda sodium bicarbonate mine, located in the Piceance Creek Basin, sits on the world’s largest naturally occurring sodium bicarbonate source, and, according to Schaeffner, produces the purest version found anywhere in the world.
Schaeffner has big plans for the mine, saying, “Within 10 years, we will disrupt the global sodium bicarbon market with the resources here in northwest Colorado.”
One way they plan to accomplish this is by expanding current operations.
Natural Soda is in the final stages of an application process with the BLM to double 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, which currently employs around 75 people, hopes to add another 10 to 20 jobs with the expansion. Sodium bicarbonate is used for many things including as an additive in dairy cattle feed, ceramics and plastics and as food-grade baking soda. The baking soda from the local Natural Soda Mine can be found in Bob’s Red Mill Baking Soda.
Betsy Bair from Sen. Gardner’s office presented AGNC with a copy of the “Sage-Grouse Protection and Conservation Act,” and she warned the group that the listing of the sage grouse (to the federally managed Endangered Species Act) would have a huge impact on local communities.
The bill, which is currently making its way through both houses of Congress, aims to have the federal government assist Western states in the development and management of conservation plans for the protection of the sage grouse while simultaneously protecting the natural resource industries’ ability to coexist with the sage grouse on federal land.
The bill requires that any withdrawals or land-use restrictions implemented in the name of sage grouse protection be immediately reversed.
Numerous groups, including the Rio Blanco County Commissioners, Farm Bureau, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the American Exploration and Mining Association, currently support the bill.
During the Rangely meeting, AGNC officials voted unanimously to add the organization’s name to the list of supporters, with several government officials expressing grave concerns about the economic impact listing the sage grouse could have.
Garfield County Commissioner Mike Samson told Bair “I hope you are successful, because if you aren’t it could be devastating for the whole Northwest community.”
AGNC meets regularly on the third Wednesday of each month. The next meeting in Rio Blanco County will be Nov. 18 in Meeker.