HEATHER BOA Bullet News GODERICH – Every year, million of tons of rock salt are pulled out from the underground at Sifto’s salt mine, most of it sent by ship and truck to depots around the Great Lakes, ready to use to deice roads during snowy weather.
There have been blips along the way – most recently, a tornado in August 2011 that caused severe damage to structures at Goderich’s harbour and elsewhere, a mild winter in 2011-12 that caused salt sales to decline six per cent, union strike action in 2012 that slowed production – but rock salt continues to be mined from the vast reserves underneath Lake Huron with a dependability that’s expected to last another hundred years and beyond.
Salt is also produced at Sifto’s evaporator plant, in a process that involves heating salt brine created from underground deposits to form a crystallized salt that has a high purity and is sold for food salt, water care products and other uses.
Since salt was introduced to clear snow and ice from roads back in the 1940s, there’s been demand for rock salt, a mineral found in such great abundance that industry association Salt Institute says its reserves are inexhausible. In the past 30 years, production has grown a steady one to two per cent annually, when years of severe and mild winters are averaged, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey for the period ending 2010. In North America, where 70 per cent or more of the roads are located in areas that receive snowfall, salt sales continue to grow, despite some concerns that salt can harm the environment and other chemical applications are explored.
In 2011, Compass Minerals, which is the parent company to Sifto Canada Corp. and other companies that produce salt, sulfate of potash, specialized fertilizers and magnesium chloride operations, recorded net earnings of $149 million compared with net earnings of $150.6 million in 2010. Excluding the effects of the tornado from 2011 results and special tax items from 2010, 2011 net earnings increased 10 per cent to $160.4 million compared with $146.3 million in 2010, according to its annual report for 2011.
Sifto is making investments in the future of its mine that take advantage of the vast reserves and a deep harbour that’s ideal for shipping.
“You don’t replicate that very easily,” said Rowland Howe, who is the country executive, Canada, for Kansas City-based Compass Minerals.
Goderich’s salt mine is the largest in the world, producing about nine million tons of rock salt annually after a $70-million investment to expand its operations. In 2007, it began a multi-phase expansion, with most of the expenditures to increase storage and loading capabilities and increase hoisting capacities in 2009 and 2010.
“Regardless of whatever the tornado did to us, this is money that’s been committed and invested over the years,” Howe said.
Sifto’s salt mine above ground operations were severely damaged in August 2011, when it became the on-shore launch point of an F3 tornado that cut a 20-km swath through Goderich and the surrounding countryside before finally petering out. The company spent $17 million to repair buildings, plant and equipment in 2011 and expected to spend another $30 million by the end of 2012. Along with that, it estimated $16 million in business losses in 2011 alone. It expects losses will be covered by insurance.
In addition to tornado repairs, it has worked to bring new technology to its mining operations.
Currently, the mine uses what’s referred to as a ‘modified four-room stress relief mining system,’ that creates a series of rooms with pillars left as support. A rock face is overcut and undercut, then blasted to create a 12-foot high opening. Miners then work downward from the ‘bench’ and advance forward to create rooms with walls that are 48 feet by 60 feet.
But the massive chain saws that make the original cuts have become obsolete so it’s time to consider newer technology. The mine is following in the footsteps of Compass Minerals’ Winsford Mine in England and switching to continuous miners, which are remote controlled, eliminate the need for dynamite blasting and create a smoother shape that requires less scaling.
“We proved it in Britain and we’re going to transplant it here,” Howe said.
The piece of equipment, which comes with a $4-million price tag, provides a constant stream of rock salt from the work area, producing up to
6,000 tons daily. Operating on tracks, it cuts the rock salt, which is caught by a loading arm and moved into a central gullet at the front of the machine where it’s moved along by a conveyer to its back, then loaded into dump trucks.
Parts for one of the massive orange machine began arriving at an old Volvo main plant storage yard a number of weeks ago, from where they were transported down to the mine. Each part will make the trip 1,800 feet underground down the shaft and will be assembled there.
The two continuous miners that are expected to be in operation initially will not surface again.
Howe said the continuous miners won’t replace any workers at the mine.
“ You’ve still got to bolt the roof, still got to haul the material away. Really, it’s going to introduce a new skill set to the mine and the guys that are operating the machines are going to have a pretty important role in how things will go,” he said.
The Ontario Power Authority’s upgrade to the Goderich TS, which will boost its capacity from 40 MW to 65 MW in order to accommodate green energy projects, will also provide the increased capacity the mine needs to introduce a new technology that relies on electricity rather than blasting. While Hydro One Networks works to expand the station that was built in the ‘60s, Goderich Hydro has arranged for installation of a breaker and feeder that will be dedicated to the mine. Sifto will pick up the $2.8 million tab for the breaker and dedicated feeder, which is expected to be operational in February 2013. The new line capacity is 30MVA, or somewhere in the 20 MW range.
In order to ensure the rock salt can be stored and transported to its customers, Compass Minerals came to the table with $19 million to help fund the Goderich port expansion. In part, the $47-million project will create additional space for loading and unloading ships, and storage space for salt and other commodities. It is a joint project of the Goderich Port Management Corporation, the provincial government and Compass Minerals. An Environment Assessment is expected to be submitted to the Ministry of the Environment in December.
The port expansion project comes at a time when more than 40 international and regional ports are being promoted through a program called Hwy. H2O: The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway System. GPMC is among the newest members in the alliance, which promotes a 3,700-km marine highway that runs between Canada and the United States.