Some mines face uncertainties
May 13, 2020
(Editor's note: This article was updated from the print edition published 5/13/20 to include comments regarding the Ciner facility.)
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact the economy across the globe, some of the local trona mines are facing decisions about the best way of moving forward.
At Solvay Chemicals, an unspecified number of employees will be furloughed sometime near the beginning of the month.
Todd Brichacek, the site manager at the Solvay facility, said the issue for Solvay is the demand for soda ash has declined in the past few months.
Many of the company’s customers, which primarily use the soda ash to make glass for construction and automotive uses, have cut back production as the demand for glass has lowered. Brichacek said the company only plans to furlough workers and not lay them off completely as the company believes demand will pick up after the market rebounds.
“We’re doing everything we can to keep it to a couple of months,” Brichacek said.
Genesis Alkali is also looking to make adjustments at its facility.
David Caplan, director of communications for Genesis Alkali, said the company’s market climate started changing last fall with the trade disputes between China and the United States.
The ongoing trade dispute slowed economic growth in many of the export markets served by American made soda ash.
Caplan said the company was encouraged when a Phase One trade deal was reached with China in January, but subsequent impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in further weakness and continued supply and demand imbalances.
Despite the pandemic, Caplan said they’re still open for business and still producing soda ash.
“We feel grateful we’re considered an essential industry,” Caplan said.
However, Caplan also said the company is exploring all options available to it to adjust to current economic conditions, saying Genesis Alkali is committed to finding the best solution for its employees and the company. This isn’t a unique position for the mine. When owned by FMC a decade ago, Caplan said it faced a similar downturn in 2008 and was able to reposition itself and navigate its way to a prosperous period.
“History shows it does come back,” Caplan said. “Soda ash is an important product.”
The optimism about the market is motivating Ciner to operate without seeking worker furloughs or changing its approach to the expansion project the company is working on. According to Craig Rood, director of public relations and community affairs at Ciner, while the company has seen reductions in demand from automotive and flat glass manufacturers, demand from container glass companies remains strong. He said the company remains in contact with all of its customers and regularly look at global demand to continue serving their end markets in the best way.
Our focus on safety and people shaped our response to the pandemic," Rood said.
He said every Ciner employee seeks ways to operate in the safest and most efficient ways possible, with its management team looking at means to cope with the disruption the pandemic is causing the company's business. One of the options includes alternating the annual maintenance outage schedules to take advantage of the lessened demand.
Our teams are also increasing their focus on process improvement and housekeeping," Rood said.
With the company's planned expansion, Rood said Ciner recently moved into a new change house facility and started a new co-gen facility that will help Ciner manage its utility costs.
"Ciner has always taken a long-term view on our business and investment in Sweetwater County and that remains unchanged," Rood said.
Rood, like Caplan and Brichacek, also believes demand will return once the economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic. he said long-term forecasts of the soda ash industry are positive, with growth averaging 2 percent for the past several years.
"While soda ash is a commodity business it is more resilient than other commodities given its diversified end markets," Rood said. "As the end users ramp up their production, our production will ramp up as well."