CASPER, Wyo. — The nation’s largest soda ash producer is planning to double the capacity of its Granger production facility, which is due to restart in July.
FMC Wyoming Corp. has begun design work on the expansion of the current facility, which will produce 500,000 tons of soda ash when it goes into production next month.
If the expansion is approved by the company’s board of directors this year, the construction will double production at the facility to 1.2 million tons by 2014.
“The concept is to utilize the existing solution mining technology from our Westvaco plant in the design of our Granger expansion,” FMC Wyoming President Ed Flynn said in a media release. “The new design will allow us to scale capacity beyond 1.2 million tons in the future.”
Green River Basin mining
More than 90 percent of the nation’s trona is mined from the Green River Basin. Trona ore is mined at depths of nearly 2,000 feet and then processed into soda ash at the surface refineries.
While the company didn’t release what the potential plant expansion would mean for jobs in Sweetwater County, the expansion is big news for the county, where FMC — with 970 workers at last count — is the largest private employer.
“I am very excited about the FMC expansion,” said Michelle Hostetler, director of the Sweetwater Economic Development Association.
“The trona industry has always been the core of Sweetwater County’s strong economy, and this is one step forward and is a very beneficial, positive step forward for the members of our community and for the national economy.”
Since 2006, when the federal government reduced soda ash royalties, the U.S. soda ash industry has increased exports and more than doubled capital expenditures leading to job growth despite the worst recession in a generation, Flynn said.
Soda ash is used in glass, soaps and detergents as well as in some industrial chemicals.
The company announced plans in January to restart the mothballed Granger facility, citing booming export markets, which the company said were recovering much more quickly than the domestic demand for soda ash. Flynn said then the company would further evaluate production increases at the Granger facility, which has a nameplate capacity of 1.3 million tons a year.
The plans to expand the facility came as good news to Marion Loomis, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, which represents the state’s mining industry, including trona ore.
“It’s encouraging,” he said. “I’m glad to see people making investments in Wyoming.”
FMC owns the largest of the four multinational trona mining and soda ash processing plants located about 20 miles west of Green River in southwest Wyoming.
Green River producers account for just more than a quarter of the world’s total soda ash production, U.S. Geological Survey year-end data show.
Wyoming’s industry has struggled in recent years to compete globally, primarily because of climbing natural gas costs, increased transportation costs and the market share consumed by China’s synthetic soda ash, which is more expensive than Wyoming’s natural product but is subsidized to keep its price competitive.
Despite economic and energy problems in places around the world, however, global demand for soda ash is expected to climb up to 2 percent annually over the next several years, according to the Geological Survey analysis issued early this year. Domestic demand also may grow in 2011 if the U.S. economy improves and export sales continue to rebound, the USGS said.
FMC announced in May 2010 that the company was raising its soda ash prices for some customers by nearly 1 percent to keep up with rising production costs.
The price of a short ton of soda ash for some customers rose by $10 beginning July 1, followed by another $10 per ton price bump effective Nov. 1. On June 3, the company said it would boost the price per ton by $20, citing a need to pay for cost increases and investment in its business.
Denver-based CH2M HILL, a design, construction and operation consulting firm, was selected for the engineering and procurement work on the expansion. The firm began work on the first phase of the expansion last month, according to CH2M HILL.
FMC Wyoming Corp. is a subsidiary of FMC Corp., a chemical company which employs 4,800 people across the world.