Sales rising globally for sodium bicarbonate producer near Meeker

The baking soda processing plant operated in Rio Blanco County by Natural Soda Inc. — shown here in a July 2011 file photo — was expanded in 2012, and has extended its reach to growing markets for sodium bicarbonate worldwide. Photo by Christopher Tomlinson.



A bigger baking soda plant in Rio Blanco County is producing a product for a much bigger market than Natural Soda Inc. used to serve, as the company has begun exporting outside North America to countries around the world.

The company began operating its expanded processing plant last year. The $30 million expansion is allowing it to double its annual production to 250,000 tons per year, and it expects to be operating at capacity by midyear.

“We should be exporting 50,000 to 60,000 tons a year by the end of this year,” said Rob Scargill, North American managing director for Natural Soda, a division of Toronto-based Enirgi Group Corp.

Natural Soda previously served only North America, but that changed in 2012. Now it sells a product that is solution-mined from deep underground southwest of Meeker to customers in Asia, South America, North America, Australia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. It sells to 23 countries and just this month joined the Australian-based company Redox in announcing that the chemical and ingredients distributor will serve as Natural Soda’s exclusive distributor in Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia.

“The sodium bicarbonate market demands a high-quality product with stability of supply; we feel that Natural Soda fits perfectly,” said Renato Coneliano, director and marketing manager with Redox, in a news release.

Enirgi Group also owns and operates a lead mine in Australia and secondary operations there that recycle lead from used batteries. It already has done business with Redox, which supplies it with soda ash and other products for the processing and production of lead products, Scargill said. Enirgi also produces lithium carbonate in Argentina.

Natural Soda mines the world’s largest-known naturally occurring deposit of sodium bicarbonate, which is called nahcolite in its natural form. It pumps hot water underground through wells to dissolve and pump the product back to the surface.

The company has Bureau of Land Management leases covering nearly 10,000 acres.

With the expansion, Natural Soda employs more than 50 people full-time at the plant, and about 10 contractors are involved in transporting the product to a warehouse in Rifle. Scargill said both of those numbers are up about 30 percent thanks to the opening of the new plant.

Scargill said that, pending all necessary approvals including the BLM’s, Natural Soda will invest significant resources in its well field this year.

“A well lasts for six or seven years so we’re constantly having to invest in the well field,” he said.

GLOBAL DEMAND

Natural Soda’s expansion into a worldwide entity reflects a growing global population with its increasing demand for food, Scargill said. There’s more demand for baking soda in cooking as more people consume more western-style foods, and there’s growth in the animal feed business, where the product is administered as an acid-suppressant for cattle.

“That’s driving the growth in the sodium bicarbonate market. As a producer we’re looking to grow our business to meet those needs,” Scargill said.

Baking soda also is used in everything from cleaning products to personal-hygiene products such as toothpaste.

The North American market for baking soda is perhaps 750,000 tons per year, and Scargill said it’s growing about 3 percent to 4 percent per year.

“The Asian market is growing between 5 and 6 percent,” he said.

As for the potential for further expansion of Natural Soda’s operations, “we’re certainly reviewing all of our options at this moment,” Scargill said.

“We’ve got a great resource there, good people, and we’re just looking to see what’s the right thing to do for the business,” he said.

For now it’s working on replacing a pipeline to its well field and increasing its screening capacity for producing different granular sizes of baking soda, as it moves toward full operation of its new plant.

Natural Soda also holds a BLM research-and-development lease for oil shale, and the BLM has approved its oil shale development plan.

According to the development plan, the company wants to pursue a process involving removing nahcolite through solution mining and then using a downhole burner or closed-loop steam system to produce oil from the shale that is intermingled with the nahcolite underground.

Scargill said the company is reviewing where to go next with the oil shale project.

“We will continue to move forward but obviously our main focus is currently on the sodium bicarbonate business and growing that business,” he said.

“Clearly we’re in the middle of an oil shale district and have got oil in shale in our leases. We’re looking at what that might mean, and the plan of development allows us to do that.”


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