Skip to content

Got a beef with the rodeo?

Supporters and opponents of the National High School Finals Rodeo discuss their views

Ryan James

Rocket-Miner Staff Reporter

The rough and tough, wild-west mentality that helped define American frontier culture can sometimes stand in stark contrast to beliefs that have changed around the country over the years.

Few events illustrate this divide better than the rodeo, which showcases techniques still commonly used in ranching. For some, ranching is a way of life and rodeo events are a way of preserving tradition and culture. Others consider rodeo a violent sport that subjects animals to unnecessary pain, fear, stress and injury.

Rodeo opponents will have an opportunity to express their views at the National High School Finals Rodeo in Rock Springs beginning July 15.

The Sweetwater County Events Complex has designated an area by the arena parking lot for anyone who wishes to demonstrate against the event.

Animal rights activists posted a video they said shows horses being shocked in the neck and bulls being shocked in their tails and hind legs with electric cattle prods at the 2006 National High School Finals Rodeo in Farmington, N.M. The National High School Rodeo Association rulebook states horses may only be prodded below the neck if they stall in a chute before entering the arena and bulls may not be prodded at all in the chutes.


Rodeo associations are generally responsible for establishing their own rules regarding animal welfare.

Wyoming law prohibits anyone from intentionally “causing injury, death or undue suffering” as well as “cruelly beating, torturing, tormenting, mutilating or attempting to kill an animal.”

However, the law also states that it “shall not be construed to prohibit rodeo events, whether the event is performed in a rodeo, jackpot or otherwise.”

The Michigan State University College of Law’s Animal Legal and Historical Center said laws protecting cattle often focus on those who raise them, rather than the animals’ welfare.

“The extent that legislators protect cattle often relates more to the ultimate consumptive use of the cattle than the concern for the wellbeing of the animals themselves. Enacted laws rarely focus on improving the quality of life for cattle, but rather protecting people who raise, feed and slaughter cattle and people who consume cattle-derived products,” the center’s Web site said. “Owners of cattle likely view laws that restrict how they raise, feed, and slaughter animals as undesirable because such laws raise costs and could create civil penalties if not followed.”

Apart from self-policing, rodeo spectators reporting abuse are often the only form of independent accountability.

The National High School Rodeo Association rulebook allows the use of electric cattle prods, which are used to provoke horses to buck and to move animals from one place to another, only if the contestant, stock contractor and judge agree to their use.


The high school rodeo association was criticized for use of prods at the 2006 championship in Farmington, N.M.

Video posted to YouTube by an animal welfare group showed nine horses allegedly being shocked in the upper neck and 10 bulls allegedly being shocked in the tail and hind legs as they leave the chutes.

The rulebook states that horses may only be prodded below the neck if they stall in the chute and that bulls are never to be prodded in the chutes.

Kyle Partain, NHSRA media coordinator, said use of the prods in the annual event is very limited.

“We say to our friends in the animal rights groups that we follow our rules and when we do that, we don’t have problems as far as the animals go. Injuries will happen once in a while,” Partain said. “We have a philosophical difference with the animal rights groups. I don’t think there’s any bridging that gap necessarily, but we certainly do what we can to take care of the animals. … But our sport has evolved from things that are still happening on ranches every day. It’s also about holding onto our history in this country and ranching has been a big part of that.”


Many national animal welfare organizations oppose rodeos, including the Humane Society of the United States, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

“The Humane Society of the United States opposes rodeos as they are commonly organized because they cause torment and stress, expose animals to pain, injury or even death and encourage insensitivity to the inhumane treatment of animals in the name of sport,” the organization’s Web site said. “We also oppose the use of devices such as electric prods, sharpened sticks, spurs, flank straps and other rodeo equipment as well as bull riding, bronco riding, steer roping, calf roping, wild horse racing, chuck wagon racing, steer tailing and horse tripping.”

Valerie Pringle, an equine protection specialist for the humane society, said wild bucking is not natural behavior for most horses.

“We are concerned about the abuse of these wonderfully gentle animals and forcing them to do things that really aren’t in their nature. If they buck naturally, why would they need to zap them with electricity? They don’t think it’s going to be entertaining enough without the horse jumping all over the place in reaction to pain,” Pringle said.

While trained horses are usually treated well because they are considered valuable, Pringle said the horses and calves used for bucking and roping events are often purchased at auctions for little money and are considered expendable.

PETA encourages rodeo spectators to report animal abuse to the organization and local law enforcement and provides leaflets for residents who wish to demonstrate against rodeos to distribute.

“It’s important for people to keep in mind that they can replace rodeos with alternative events that both support their local economy and that don’t compromise the safety and well-being of people and animals,” said Gemma Vaughan, an animal cruelty case worker for PETA. “Animals suffer from unnatural, sudden and often injurious movements during rodeo activities. PETA receives regular reports of animals suffering broken necks, legs or backs that do not receive veterinary care that obviously they desperately need. These animals are often loaded onto trucks and taken straight to the slaughterhouse.”

Sweetwater County Events Complex Director Larry Lloyd said he believes differences in opinion over rodeos are healthy and that rodeo opponents and protesters provide a necessary balance by making rodeo competitors watch how they treat their animals.

“There are some folks who won’t agree with you in anything you do. There are people who don’t believe in NASCAR or driving around in Suburbans because they use too much fuel,” Lloyd said. “There are folks who may not agree with rodeo and how animal treatment works and each person has their own opinions. It’s the American way. … I was raised in a farming and ranching community. I think there have to be humane ways of treating animals. So if all that stuff fits in, then rodeo is a good thing.”


Cowboy state in the nuclear age

Lost Creek uranium mine expected to increase U.S. production 25 to 50 percent

Ryan James

Rocket-Miner Staff Reporter

The Great Plains region of the mid-western United States is often referred to as the Corn Belt, comprising much of the nation’s agricultural production. The region from the mid-west to the northeast is the Rust Belt, with industrial product manufacturing traditionally dominating the local economies.

Wyoming is the powerhouse. Almost every resource that fuels cars, planes, trains and power plants in the United States is extracted here, including oil, natural gas, coal, sodium bicarbonate and uranium.

The state’s southwest corner is rich in all five and produces almost all of the world’s trona, or sodium bicarbonate, which is refined into soda ash.

While Sweetwater County’s economy is driven by oil, gas and trona production, a planned uranium mine in the Lost Creek area north of Wamsutter is expected to increase domestic production between 25 and 50 percent by 2014.

Total uranium production in the United States for nuclear power generation is currently about four million pounds per year.

Ur-Energy, which has acquired most of the necessary licenses and permits for the project, anticipates an annual output of one million to two million pounds of refined yellowcake uranium powder.

Production is slated to begin spring 2013 and increase to full capacity by 2014.

Ur-Energy Casing Technician Alfredo Atilano, foreground, digging drill pits, which will house PVC pipes encased in concrete. Injection fluid is composed of sodium bicarbonate, or soda ash; carbon dioxide and oxygen. Wells at the Lost Creek site will be about 450 feet deep.


Uranium has been mined in the basin, which cuts through south central Wyoming up to its northwest corner, for more than 40 years.

One of Ur-Energy’s co-founders was a uranium prospector and geologist in the 1960’s and 70’s and long suspected the Lost Creek area was rich with the element.

It wasn’t until 2005, however, that the company was established and the permitting process began.

Steve Hatten, the vice president of operations, said the company would fill 58 positions, ideally from surrounding communities.

“I’d like to see folks from Bairoil, Wamsutter, Jeffrey City and Rawlins get involved. They’re pretty close and we really hope to impact all those communities in a very positive way,” Hatten said. “We have had nothing but positive comments from all the communities.”

About $4 million will be paid each year for salaries, with positions including field construction, engineering, geology, managerial, accounting and maintenance.


Uranium mining is very different than the common conception of tunnels, thick with dust as pickaxes clank in the dimly lit gloom.

Uranium is a thin coating on the grains of sandstone formations 70 to 80 feet thick and about 450 feet below the surface at the Lost Creek property, Hatten said. About 15 feet of uranium will be extracted from the formations.

The process begins at an injection well, where groundwater is extracted, infused with sodium bicarbonate, carbon dioxide and oxygen, and re-injected into the rock formation.

A PVC pipe encased in concrete goes down to the 450-foot production horizon, where the mining solution is flushed through the formation.

The uranium-laden solution is then pumped back to the surface through a production well about 70 feet away.

The Lost Creek operation will process 6,000 gallons per minute at full capacity.

Both the production and injection wells are connected to the processing plant via pipes six feet underground to prevent water from freezing in the winter.

The company anticipates the operation will be productive for about 10 years.


Because of the dangers of radioactivity and the process of flushing uranium through the subsurface, mining companies must navigate a maze of permits and regulations, and steer clear of any drinking water sources.

Uranium produces the highly radioactive element radium as it decays, so uranium-bearing formations contain higher radium concentrations.

Water in uranium bearing formations is generally not suitable for drinking before or after mining.

“The water quality is generally bad. It’s high in radium, uranium and other contaminants,” Hatten said.

Ur-Energy has received eight of the nine necessary regulatory approvals for Lost Creek, including a state Department of Environmental Quality permit to mine, Nuclear Regulatory Commission source and byproduct materials license, a DEQ air quality permit, a state Game and Fish Department wildlife management plan and a Sweetwater County development plan.

The company is awaiting final approval of the plan of operations by the Bureau of Land Management, which CEO Wayne Heili said he hopes will be granted before August.

Every material that could be removed with the uranium must be identified in an environmental impact statement, Hatten said.

The company will also be required to monitor water around the area of interest to ensure no potential contaminants seep beyond this boundary.

The permitting process culminates with the environmental impact statement, which includes surface, subsurface and groundwater impacts; operation and processing methods; and reclamation methods once the uranium is no longer economically feasible to extract.

Because the process doesn’t slurry the sand below, it doesn’t create physical caverns of displaced material, Hatten said.

“When we talk about subsurface effects, we’re not talking about physical effects. We’re talking about chemical effects and mobilizing constituents in the groundwater,” Hatten said. “Unlike a conventional mine, we don’t take away the surface to get to the subsurface. It is literally inconsequential to the total volume…(Uranium) is truly a mild coating on the sand grains. You will see no subsidence and no effects to the formation.”

The well pads, or area of surface disturbance are about .025 acres, or 1,090 square feet.

A drum filled with yellowcake uranium powder, which is isolated from a solution injected in one well and pumped back to the surface through a production well after seeping through a rock formation.


Uranium mining companies must submit a multi-million dollar bond to the DEQ, which is returned upon completion of a successful reclamation. If a company folds or does not adequately reclaim an area, the bond is forfeited and used to fund the cleanup.

Once mining is completed, the EPA issues an aquifer exemption permit that limits use of the area to mining in general.

Wastewater can be disposed of several different ways, including extraction, treatment and re-injection. Hatten said Ur-Energy plans to inject the waste in deep disposal wells permitted and approved by the state. It will be treated using ion exchange, reverse osmosis and simple filtration.

The company must remove well bore piping, connector pipes and roads. The well bores are sealed with concrete, the surface is re-seeded and the processing plant is dismantled and removed.

The life cycle for each 30- to 40-acre mine unit from pre-production drilling and construction to final reclamation is three to four years, Hatten said. About 600 to 700 wells will be drilled on each unit.

Drilling and logging contractors working in the Lost Creek area. Ur-Energy plans to employ about 58 people and pay about $4 million annually for salaries. Some employees will remain at the site for extended periods and other will commute daily. The areas of mining and drilling operations where workers live are known as man camps.


Nuclear power plants generate 20 percent of the electricity used in the United States. In France, the proportion is 80 percent.

“We really consider nuclear and hydro-electric power as the base load power in the U.S. because those don’t really turn off and on, where coal and natural gas become a little bit more flexible,” Hatten said.

Nuclear power generation is alternately described as both renewable and non-renewable energy because of its level of efficiency and the finite availability of uranium-bearing formations.

The most notable drawbacks to nuclear power generation are the risks, however slight, of the meltdown of a nuclear reactor core and the radioactive waste material produced.

A federal appeals court ruling June 8 struck down a Nuclear Regulatory Commission rule that allowed spent nuclear fuel to be stored on-site for up to 60 years.

The radioactive waste is now stored in containment pools and dry casks. The ruling comes after the Obama administration ended funding for a project to store the waste indefinitely at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Despite the risks, reactor meltdowns are rare and nuclear power generation itself produces no carbon dioxide emissions.

Happy Father’s Day!

This one’s for David Alan James, the greatest guy I know. Some of my memories:

Natural gas data wars

New study in science journal makes fracking’s impact unclear

Ryan James

Rocket-Miner Staff Reporter

The already heated debate over the role hydraulic fracturing for natural gas should play in the country’s overall energy strategy increased a few degrees earlier this year with the publication of an article in the Journal of Geophysical Research indicating Environmental Protection Agency estimates for methane emissions from natural gas systems may be about half the actual rates.

The study conducted by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists is the latest in a series of conflicting estimates by the EPA, groups representing the natural gas industry and the NOAA.

The NOAA study published in February was conducted in 2008 in Weld County, Colorado, which lies atop the Denver Julesburg Basin and was reported by National Public Radio on May 17.

The natural gas industry countered on June 5 with its own study by the American Petroleum Institute and America’s Natural Gas Alliance showing estimates only half the EPA’s.

This study analyzed data from about 20 percent of U.S. producing wells, a sample size which the American Natural Gas Alliance said is more than 10 times larger than the EPA’s.

While the NOAA study relied on direct emissions sampling as opposed to data analysis, it was limited to one area of oil and gas production.

Methane comprises less than five percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. However, it is 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide in trapping solar radiation in the atmosphere.


A “Christmas tree” drilling rig structure supports equipment that drills to gas formations more than a mile below the earth’s surface. This rig in the Vermillion Field near Rock Springs, Wyoming is about 1,500 feet away from the the actual pay zone, or area of production. Distancing wells from their pay zones allows companies to cluster five to eight wells in a single location as the pipes branch out underground. This minimizes surface disturbance so that each well is not a separate area of environmental disruption.


Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, North Dakota, Texas and parts of the mid-west have benefited the most from the natural gas boom of the past decade.

Southwest Wyoming alone has thousands of natural gas wells with dozens of companies profiting from the trillions of cubic feet locked in the region’s geologic formations.

Jimmy Druce, the operations manager for Questar Corporation’s natural gas supplier Wexpro, has spent his more than 30-year career in the natural gas industry.

Druce, who lives and has raised his family in Rock Springs, said the industry has made great strides in reducing pollution emissions since he started working.

“This is just a really cool industry to work for,” Druce said. “I’m really proud to work in this industry and there was a time that I wasn’t.”

Much less caution was taken during drilling operations a few decades ago, Druce said, but that has largely changed as companies have self-regulated and complied with new government regulations.

It is not in a producer’s economic interest for methane to escape to the atmosphere, Druce said, because any gas emitted is lost profit.

Druce also said natural gas is much cleaner burning than other fossil fuels, making it the most environmentally safe alternative to oil.

At current extraction rates, the economic feasibility of producing natural gas worldwide is currently estimated to end in around 60.2 years, according to the 2011 International Energy Outlook report released by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“I have faith in the human condition. I’m sure we’ll develop new technology to keep going when that time comes,” Druce said.


Several influential gas producers expressed a mixture of skepticism and openness to the federal government spending money on development and innovation in renewable energy technologies like wind, solar and geothermal energy.

Doug Hock, director of community and public relations for Encana, said renewable energy is not yet refined enough to meet current energy demand levels.

“Beyond economics, technical issues are holding back renewables, most notably their intermittent nature. The wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine, so they are not capable of providing the base load of energy needed by consumers. Ironically, natural gas is the most efficient backup source for renewables. So, the more wind power you develop, the more natural gas you need,” Hock said. “However, these types of discussions often overlook the enormous impact technology has on energy development…It’s very likely that over the next hundred years, technologies will develop that will allow for the storage of renewable energy. In the meantime, natural gas provides a great complement to renewable energy sources.”


Jimmy Druce, operations manager for Questar supplier Wexpro, explains how water and natural gas liquids, like butane and benzene, are separated from the desirable methane gas. The Environmental Protection Agency requires companies to capture and burn cancer-causing volatile organic compounds like benzene during a well completion, the production phase in which VOC’s quickly rise to the surface once a rock formation is fractured.


Beginning Jan. 1, 2015, the EPA will require operators to capture and make available for use or sale the gas released shortly after a well is drilled, known as a green completion.

Currently, operators are required to directly burn or capture and burn volatile organic compound emissions. The EPA estimates that green completions during the three- to ten-day flowback period reduce these emissions by 95 percent at each well.

However, methane emissions can come from many different sources including wells, storage tanks, compressing stations and other production equipment.

The NPR article quoted Cindy Allen, the head of Encana’s environment team, as saying emission detection is not practical.

“Direct emission measurement is extremely expensive. It’s not realistic to install such devices on every single emissions source that there is,” Allen was quoted as saying.

The Obama administration has employed what it calls an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy, approving 29 onshore renewable energy projects since 2009, according to the White House’s Web site.

Obama has also called on Congress to eliminate tax breaks for the oil and gas industry, which he says would save taxpayers $4 billion per year.

Recent independent studies from Management Information Services and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimate oil and gas industry subsidies at about $10 billion per year, defined as tax breaks, lowered costs for producers, lowered prices for consumers or any incentive not directly driven by the free market.

Who pays for an ambulance ride?

County officials and businesses struggle to find a sustainable funding model

Ryan James

Rocket-Miner Staff Reporter

The emergency medical workers spoke in soft, comforting tones to the patient, explaining everything they were doing.

The elderly woman said she was scared and didn’t want to go to the hospital, glancing nervously back and forth between the two men.

“You need to go to the hospital to get better,” said the woman’s daughter, who had called a Rock Springs ambulance company less than an hour earlier for her mother’s breathing problems.

The wheezing in the woman’s lungs had already stopped when the ambulance arrived at Memorial Hospital of Sweetwater County.

Grant Parker and Mark Esterholdt, employees of Sweetwater Medics LLC, said they get satisfaction out of the intense nature and constantly changing settings of ambulance work.

“We don’t get a lot of recognition, but that’s not why I do it,” Esterholdt said.

When Rock Springs residents call for medical transportation, someone always responds, regardless of any individual patient’s ability to pay.


For 50 years, Vase Emergency Medical Services was the only company operating ambulances in town and received a subsidy from Sweetwater County.

When Sweetwater Medics was established in 2007, the Sweetwater County Commission gradually decreased the subsidy before ending it entirely.

Commissioner John Kolb said Vase EMS was receiving about $1 million per year before the decrease.

Three ambulance companies—Vase, Sweetwater Medics and Rock Springs Regional Ambulance Service—operated in Rock Springs for about three years. Vase stopped answering 911 calls in 2010.

Sweetwater Medics became the only company answering emergency calls when Rock Springs Regional left the 911 rotation on March 17.

Sweetwater Medics representatives said they couldn’t respond to every call and remain profitable.

The commissioners approved a nearly $63,000 budget amendment March 20 to fund Sweetwater Medics for three months until the end of the fiscal year in June.

All five commissioners said they needed to review Sweetwater Medics’ finances and weigh various options before determining a long-term solution.


Steve Kourbelas and Ron Gatti, both formerly Vase employees, said they established Sweetwater Medics because they had fundamental disagreements with how Vase was operating the service and they felt they could provide a higher standard of care.

When Vase declined their proposal to provide 24-hour, paramedic-level coverage, Kourbelas and Gatti said they decided to establish the company with two other people.

There are three levels of emergency medical care: emergency medical technician basic, emergency medical technician intermediate and paramedic.

Gatti said the paramedic level is exponentially higher than EMT intermediate.

“None of us are businessmen or politicians, but we’re pretty darn good paramedics,” Gatti said.


Representatives at all three companies said they do not believe that a private sector ambulance service can make a profit in Rock Springs.

“It is not sustainable for one company to run all of the 911 responses,” Kourbelas said. “The burden of having staff on twenty-four hours a day is too much for a company to absorb and still be viable.”

Kolb said he opposes subsidizing a private company if the for-profit model is insufficient.

“I don’t want to partner up with an entity that’s failing,” Kolb said. “Public-private partnerships never work because you take away the incentive of the private business to be prudent.”

Kolb said because ambulance service is crucial, he would consider supporting the county assuming responsibility for it.

This is still a speculative scenario, however, as the commissioners have not yet reviewed Sweetwater Medics’ financial statements.


Kim Vase and her family operated Vase EMS from 1956 to 2010, answering every 911 call until 2007.

Vase said she does not believe an ambulance company can survive in Rock Springs without public assistance and that the county should take responsibility for providing the service.

Vase questioned why the commissioners didn’t just subsidize both Rock Springs Regional and Sweetwater Medics instead of waiting for one company to fail and subsidizing the only remaining company.

Vase said if the previous commissioners had not cut her company’s subsidy, the county would have avoided the problems it currently faces.

“We supported the community with our service from 1956 to 2010 and were glad to do it,” Vase said.

Allen Spencer, who helped found Rock Springs Regional, said reimbursement for medical services has dramatically decreased in the past few years.

Spencer said he believes personal favoritism and conflicts of interest among city, county and hospital officials contributed to preferential treatment for Sweetwater Medics in receiving county assistance.

“I think it’s wrong for the government to bail out a private business. Rock Springs Regional never went to anyone for any type of subsidy,” Spencer said.

Kolb and Spencer both discussed the possibility of the county running ambulances from the hospital.

In Wyoming, hospital districts can be established to pay for ambulances, clinics and other medical services.

The Castle Rock Ambulance Service, for example, is funded by the Castle Rock Hospital District and has a volunteer staff.


Jimmy Johnson is the president-elect of the national American Ambulance Association.

Johnson said it doesn’t make sense to have more than one ambulance service in a town the size of Rock Springs, which had about 23,000 residents in 2010, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics.

Johnson described a model used in Tulsa, Okla. that funds ambulance services through utility bill assessments.

Residents pay a few extra dollars on monthly water bills. The payment amount depends on the number of water meters and yearly cost of providing EMS.

The additional payment could be optional, Johnson said, and those choosing not to participate would pay more for each ambulance ride.

Johnson said he believes EMS is as important as a fire department, and should also be publicly funded.

Full government operation of ambulances generally costs around $500,000 per year for each vehicle, he said.

Jerry Klein, CEO of Memorial Hospital, said ambulance companies in areas he has previously lived are profitable, but each community has different needs and no model would be appropriate for every community.

The buried treasure of trona

Turning a profit from soda ash, glass and ancient lakebeds is the second largest industry in southwest Wyoming

Ryan James

Rocket-Miner Staff Reporter

A thick haze of dust particles hang in the stale, damp-smelling air. A vast maze of tunnels, almost like a dungeon, spiders through thick walls of rock 1,600 feet below the surface of the earth. When the lights go out, you can’t see your hand in front of your face. Pitch black. This is what it must feel like to be blind.

It is a trona mine, operated by Tata Chemicals west of Green River, Wyoming. This mine extracts about 3,500 tons of raw trona ore every 12-hour shift and about two and a half million tons per year.

Trona, or sodium bicarbonate, is a naturally occurring mineral that is refined to make soda ash, which is used in the manufacturing processes for glass and baking soda.

The glass in car and home windows, in wine glasses and light bulbs were all made using soda ash and there’s a good possibility it came from a trona seam in southwest Wyoming.

A chunk of raw trona ore, given to me by the manager of a mine


Southwest Wyoming was once a vast lake. When the lake dried up, the trona deposits on the lakebed were covered with sediment, sand and dirt over millions of years.

Ron Hughes, executive vice president and site manager at Solvay Chemicals, said there is about 100 billion tons of trona in the Green River Basin, the largest deposit of its kind in the world.

The only other trona deposit in the United States is in Searles Valley, California. The deposit in Wyoming is the only one that is extracted in underground mines and is by far the largest. The others—all in Africa—are on lakebeds and are extracted as brine.

The trona mining industry in southwest Wyoming is second in revenues only to the oil and natural gas industry and provides thousands of jobs to the area’s residents.

Four companies mine trona in the Green River formation—Tata Chemicals, Solvay Chemicals, OCI Chemical Corporation and FMC Corporation.

John Fackrell waits for the shaft elevator at the Tata Chemicals trona mine. Fackrell started working in these mines in 1972 and now helps manage the underground operations. Fackrell gave me a tour of the mine in a Bobcat vehicle for the three-hour, 13-mile trip.


Trona was discovered accidentally in the 1930’s by the FMC Corporation while it was drilling for oil. At the time, it was not known that soda ash could be produced from trona.

It wasn’t until 1948 that the FMC Corporation began mining trona and refining it to produce soda ash, said Hughes.

Over time, trona mining offset synthetic production of soda ash, said Randy Pitts, Plant Manager at Tata Chemicals. Solvay Chemicals pioneered the synthetic production process. Pitts said the input costs make the process less economically efficient than mining trona.

Mining has also become much more efficient in the 64 years since it began. Three mining methods are currently used: bore mining, continuous mining and long-wall mining. Continuous mining is the least efficient, said Pitts, because it produces batches of trona ore in contrast to bore mining, which continually feeds the ore by conveyor belt.

While long-wall mining is the most productive method, it is also the most expensive. FMC is one of the few companies that use the long-wall method.

Between 11 million and 13 million tons of trona are mined in the Green River Formation every year.

Mike Hohn, site manager at OCI Chemical Corporation said he is not concerned about depletion of the Green River Formation because current mining methods will be possible for several decades.

Pitts said in about 50 years, the industry may have to transition to a new method once the easy-to-reach trona is gone.

The teeth on the rotating head of an enormous trona mining machine. The machine’s head is about five feet in diameter.


Enclosed spaces, machine fumes and silica dust wouldn’t seem to be a healthy work environment.

However, Pitts said mine ventilation is a large component of worker safety standards. While silica is present in the dust, levels are low, said Pitts. Lung issues have never been identified, despite the several decades the industry has existed.

“The worst trona mine beats the hell out of the best coal mine because you’re mining something that’s incombustible,” said Pitts.

The biggest single health hazard is inhaled particulates from machine exhaust, but Pitts said a certain amount of airflow is required in the mines and air quality is measured every shift.

There was one mine collapse at Solvay Chemicals in the 1990’s, said Pitts, but accidents are relatively rare.


The single biggest use of soda ash is in glass production. Soda ash lowers the melting point of the quartz sand used to make flat glass and container glass.

Flat glass is used to make window panes and container glass is used to make bottles.

Hughes said there is a 90 percent likelihood that any glass encountered in the U.S. was mined in Green River.

Soda ash is also used to make baking soda and detergents.

Hughes said the largest trona seam—bed  17—will  get mined out one day, but the deposit is currently still enormous.

“Generations of people will be mining trona,” said Hughes.

Growing up in poverty

Wyoming sees 27 percent increase in childhood poverty from 2005 to 2010

Ryan James

Rocket-Miner Staff Reporter

When the U.S. economy falls into recession or unemployment increases, there are few words of consolation for those who lose their possessions and careers.

But the greatest impact is often on the most vulnerable citizens, those without the ability to even apply for a job, without the ability to vote—children.

The numbers in Wyoming tell a sad story. Between 2005 and 2010, there was a 27 percent increase in the childhood poverty rate with the most drastic increase from 2009 to 2010.

The U.S. federal poverty level in 2010 was about $14,500 for a family of two and about $22,000 for a family of four.

By 2010, 39 percent of the state’s children lived in low-income households defined as below 200 percent of the FPL, or about $44,000 a year for a family of four.

This was an increase of five percentage points from 2009.


Wini VanValkenburg started working at the Broadway Bargains thrift store in Rock Springs in the early 1980s. Half of the store's proceeds are donated to local charities such as Cowboys Against Cancer.

Wini VanValkenburg has been serving the low-income community in Rock Springs for nearly 30 years.

VanValkenburg has been working at the Broadway Bargains thrift store since about 1982. The First Congregational Church in Rock Springs opened the store after having extra goods left over from a used-item sale.

VanValkenburg said sometimes when someone in need of clothes for work comes in with no money, the store will donate the items.

“Every time I come into this store, it’s a blessing,” said VanValkenburg. “We love our customers and we’ve made so many good friends. We’ve helped so many people.”


Kids Count is a division of the Wyoming Children’s Action Alliance. Marc Homer, the Kids Count director and self-proclaimed “childrens’-advocate-in-chief” said Wyoming is not living up to its potential.

Sweetwater County, in particular, is falling behind in several areas, said Homer.

“Sweetwater is typical of a lot of Wyoming communities that are not really providing that well for families and kids,” said Homer.

Early childhood development programs can have the greatest impact on reducing the long-term effects of poverty, Homer said, because the rate of brain development peaks in early childhood.

Sweetwater County has the lowest capacity of any county in the state to place low-income children in these programs, Homer said. For every 100 children under 5 years old, there are 51 available spaces on average in Wyoming; in Sweetwater County, there are 26.

Additionally, Homer said many of the programs lack a quality academic plan and sufficiently trained teachers.

Homer said a correlation exists between poverty and numerous other problems like domestic violence, teen pregnancies and substance abuse.


State representatives Elaine Harvey and Leslie Nutting both said programs to educate women and help them find good jobs are very important. Nutting is a member of the state Labor, Health and Social Services Committee and Harvey is one of two chairmen.

Nutting said the income gap between men and women in Wyoming also contributes to childhood poverty as many women raise their child(ren) without financial support.

Nutting and Harvey also said they believe that excessive federal regulation hampers job creation and contributes to slow economic growth.

Homer said he is critical of the decision by the legislature to reject $38 million in federal unemployment benefits in the previous legislative session.

Nutting said while she does not oppose federal grant money or funding entirely, she supports a smaller role for the federal government and would be very cautious in accepting any money.

Homer said he suspects rejection of federal money is ideological and he hopes legislators would be more open to federal aid to address poverty because federal funding is used in other areas like roads and wildlife conservation.

“I don’t see why there’s any need to cut corners when it come to children,” said Homer. “The arguments they used were sort of based on mythology as I see it.”

Economist James Heckman said that investing in disadvantaged children is economically efficient, citing a long-term study on the effects of early childhood education on low-income toddlers.

The Perry study predicts a $16 return for every dollar invested in early care and education programs.

Harvey said these investments are necessary, but the impacts will not be seen for many years.

“I’m on board for trying to come up with new ideas…there just aren’t any quick or easy answers,” said Harvey.