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Wyoming Home To Oldest-Known Prehistoric Mine In North, South America

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming is home to the oldest-known prehistoric mine in at least two continents and a state agency is working to help preserve it.

In a release from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, the department announced its plans to preserve the Powars II Paleoindian Archaeological Site in Sunrise, believed to be the oldest known mining operation in both North and South America.

DEQ partnered with a number of individuals to preserve the 13,000-year-old ochre mine so archaeologist can study the site for years to come.

Ochre is a powdery mineral that some Native American tribes use as a pigment for a variety of ritualistic purposes. It comes in a variety of natural colors, but the ochre in Sunrise is red.

Former Sunrise resident Wayne Powars first discovered the site in 1939 or 1940, but didn’t report his findings until 1986, right before the mine was scheduled to razed. DEQ wasn’t aware of the mine until Powars revealed it.

“This can’t be the only one around, but it’s just so unusual. And it’s a site that I think is telling us a lot about what was going on (back then) and some of the first people that came to Wyoming,” archaeologist George Frison said.

Clovis points, also known as arrowheads, have been found at the Powars site, something Frison said will help determine who were the first people to come to Wyoming.

Archaeologist George Zeimans said the Powars site is unique not only because it’s believed to be the oldest mining operation on two continents but because of the number of artifacts being found at the site.

“(At) a lot of these Clovis sites, you’re lucky to find two or three artifacts, and you learn what you can from them. But this is an extremely rich site,” Zeimans said. “We’ve got over 80 Clovis points out of this site.”

The site includes not only the mine but also a toolstone quarry, which likely means the people were creating tools at the mine, using them and bringing them back.

The research on the site is currently funded by a private group of collectors and archaeology enthusiasts.

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Wyoming Coal Bankruptcies: Who is Responsible for Reclamation?

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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Since 2015, six coal companies operating in Wyoming have filed for bankruptcy, causing some to question who will be responsible for reclaiming the defunct operations’ mines. 

However, Wyoming coal mining rules that recently underwent a significant update will protect the state against having to foot the bill for any reclamation left uncompleted should a mine simply walk away from its obligations, state officials said.

Shannon Anderson, a staff attorney with the Powder River Basin Resource Council, said her organization has concerns about future reclamation, given declines in the coal industry.

“With potential coal mine closures, we’re concerned a lot of that reclamation yet to occur won’t have funding,” she said. “Coal mine economics continue to deteriorate. Coal generation is at its lowest level since 1975, and these are trends that are probably not going to reverse.”

The resource council was founded in 1973 to advocate for responsible energy development, and Anderson said tracking reclamation efforts was a top priority for the organization in 2020.

“We’re three to four decades into coal mining now,” Anderson said. “And, there’s still a lot of land that hasn’t been reclaimed yet.”

According to a report released by the Western Organization of Resource Councils, more than 234 square miles of coal-disturbed land is unreclaimed across the West with Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota accounting for the vast majority of the unreclaimed lands.

“Luckily, Wyoming has been revising its bonding rules,” Anderson said. “But, we still have a lot of work to do.” 

Contemporaneous reclamation

Coal reclamation is the recovery of mined land for use by other industries and the public, said Kyle Wendtland, a Department of Environmental Quality Land Quality Division administrator. 

As companies move their mining operations forward, they reclaim previously mined areas, which lowers the cost of reclamation, Wendtland explained.

“For surface coal mines, reclamation is concurrent with the mining, or contemporaneous,” he said. “As you expose the coal through creation of a pit and extraction of the resource, that pit advances, and then, the prior pit is backfilled.” 

After backfilling and contouring a previously mined tract of land, mining companies add top soil and seed it as the first phase of the reclamation process. By phase two, the land is often already back in use, Wendtland said.

“Typically, most of this land will go back to agricultural production of some sort,” he said. “In phase two, you’re usually seeing it used for some sort of livestock or wildlife grazing or hay production.” 

The land must be in phase two for at least 10 years before it is eligible for release in phase three, DEQ spokesperson Keith Guille said. 

“Ensuring the companies follow the reclamation procedure is our responsibility,” Guille said. “We have inspectors go out to these mines once a month to ensure they’re meeting requirements.” 

All Wyoming mines are currently in compliance with the DEQ’s reclamation standards, he added.

Bonding process

To receive a mining permit from the DEQ, a company must post a reclamation bond, a performance obligation guaranteeing the permittee will return the land to a natural state. 

“The idea is the bond itself is a financial number of what it would cost for a third party to reclaim the mine,” Guille explained. “It’s like insurance.”

The most common form of bonding is a surety bond.

“Many companies pay premiums to a surety company, which in turn says they will cover them for this much of the bond if by chance they were to walk away,” Guille said. 

In 2019, Wyoming tracked more than $2.4 billion in surety bonds for coal and non-coal reclamation, according to DEQ documents. 

Self-bonding is the second most popular bonding method in Wyoming and concerns organizations like the resource council most. 

“Self-bonding is when you have a company that has a really high credit solvency,” Wendtland said. “And, they’re saying they have sufficient assets in the company that even if they fail, they’ll pay for the reclamation.”

Wyoming tracked more than $400 million in self bonds for coal and non-coal reclamation in 2019 of which $297 million was designated specifically for coal, DEQ documents state. 

Prior to 2015, the state held more than $2 billion in self bonds for coal.

Following guidance provided by the governor’s office, Wendtland said the DEQ reviewed its bonding policies when coal mines started filing for bankruptcy.

“We took the ‘hard look’ at our rules and did a rewrite,” he said. “Gov. Mark Gordon signed that new rules package in May 2019. Right now, Wyoming is the only state that’s undergone the rigorous process of doing that.”  

Under the new rules, self bonds can be used for up to 75 percent of a company’s bond amount and are accepted based on a credit rating rather than the previous system, which used on-balance sheet ratios. 

The changes are working well, Guille said, and the DEQ is confident the state will not have to cover bankrupt companies’ reclamation costs in the future. 

“We strengthened the rules to protect the taxpayers, the state and the companies,” he explained, adding no further changes are in the works. “We believe we’re at a point that we don’t need to be changing things around anymore.”

By the numbers:

The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality reported about 184,000 acres of land in Wyoming are listed as disturbed by coal operations. 

Fixed facilities — shops, haul roads and rail spurs — account for approximately 38,000 of the overall acreage.

Active mining pits account for about 40,000 acres. 

Leaving approximately 107,000 acres in various phases of reclamation.

The DEQ reported all coal mines are in compliance with Wyoming’s reclamation requirements.

Wyoming’s Economy: Trona is Bright Spot for Wyoming Mining

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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Hidden from sight beneath Sweetwater County’s rolling hills, thousands of miners dig for Wyoming’s top international export — trona.

“We have four different companies mining underground beds of trona between Green River and Rock Springs,” said Travis Deti, the Wyoming Mining Association executive director. “The mines are actually quite the sight to see. It’s like a whole little city down there with machine shops, bathrooms and roads.” 

A sodium carbonate compound, trona is processed into soda ash, which is used in baking soda, glass making and cleaning products such as laundry detergent.

Wyoming is home to the largest trona deposit in the U.S., and the Sweetwater mines produce more than 17 million tons of trona annually, Deti said.

“We export about 50 percent of that right now, and I do think you’ll see the demand go up in coming years,” he added. “It’s really a bright spot for Wyoming mining right now.” 


RELATED VIDEO: Gigantic Drill in Wyoming Trona Mine

Unlike coal, trona doesn’t need to trudge through red tape before being exported.

“Coal is an energy material and has emissions, but trona doesn’t have those issues because you’re exporting it to create products, not to burn for energy,” Deti said. “There’s not a lot of politics surrounding trona and soda ash.”

Natural vs. synthetic

Soda ash produced from trona rock competes against synthetically produced soda ash to meet global demands, said David Caplan, communications director for Genesis Alkali.

“Synthetic soda ash is created with a chemical process and fills about 75 percent of the worldwide supply,” Caplan said. “Natural soda ash makes up the remaining 25 percent. But it has a lot of environmental advantages over the synthetic product.”

The process to produce soda ash from natural trona rocks requires less energy input, thus creating less greenhouse gasses, he explained.

In the U.S., soda ash is primarily used to create glass products and baking soda. In years past, North American laundry detergent companies used soda ash as a key component of dry detergents, but Caplan said consumers shifted toward liquid detergents and pods, which are created with significantly less soda ash.  

“In the U.S., we have a mature market — the average household uses 17 pounds of soda ash each year,” he said. “In developing countries trying to industrialize, you’re seeing soda ash use of less than 5 pounds per household per year. So, there’s a lot of room left for growth.” 


RELATED VIDEO: Another Gigantic Drill in Wyoming Trona Mine

Genesis Alkali’s products are shipped to Southeast Asia, Central America and South America, he said. 

“With the growing popularity of Mexican beer over the last decade, we’re seeing a lot of our international products — primarily the glass bottles — come back into the U.S.,” Caplan said. 

With a potential for a strong future in growing markets, the industry is continually evolving, developing new technology and reducing inefficiencies.

“Through technology and engineering, we’re able to improve our yields,” Caplan explained. “But one challenge we spend a lot of time researching is trying to ensure we have ample water. We use a lot of water, and we have to keep an eye on that.”

Supporting Sweetwater

Employing more than 2,000 workers, Wyoming’s trona industry plays an integral role in both the Green River and Rock Springs economies.

“Trona is the life blood of this community,” Green River Mayor Pete Rust said. “It’s the reason Green River has the second-highest median income in the state.” 

More than just jobs, the industry injects spendable income into the local economy, allowing other industries to thrive, Rust said. 


RELATED VIDEO: A Look Inside a Wyoming Trona Mine

But as the state works to diversify its energy portfolio, he said new hurdles have popped up.

“Recently, there’s been some interesting kinds of challenges with new interest in solar farms,” Rust said. “There’s some potential conflict of interests with these new developments that take up quite a bit of space.”

Deti said the energy and trona industries have to work together to ensure surface development doesn’t “sterilize” access to the minerals below. 

“I think it’s all about striking a balance,” he said.

In Rock Springs, Mayor Tim Kaumo said trona is equally critical to the city’s survival. 

“We’ve already got a black eye from the decline in coal,” Kaumo said. “If we were to ever lose trona mining, it would be extremely detrimental.”

That situation seems unlikely, however, and instead, he said the city is seeking to capitalize on the potential growth of soda ash demand.

“We’re trying to capture more of the manufacturing side so we can entice businesses to come to Sweetwater County, take advantage of the in-place infrastructure and produce products generated by the trona patch,” Kaumo said.

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