OGDEN — A once controversial plan by Great Salt Lake Minerals to expand its solar evaporation ponds has been dramatically scaled back in a nod to environmental concerns and after meetings with federal regulators.
The Ogden-based company, the country's only producer of a speciality fertilizer called sulfate of potash, had sought to expand its acreage by 91,000 acres for new ponds, including 8,000 acres at the lake's northwestern arm of Bear River Bay.
Additionally, the company wanted to withdraw 353,000 acre-feet of water per year under its original application submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2009.
Company officials say the new plan submitted Tuesday steers clear of Bear River Bay, eliminates the water withdrawal and reduces acreage to 52,000 acres, or more than 40 percent.
“We studied, we listened, we collaborated, and we changed our plan accordingly,” said Corey Milne, director of advanced manufacturing technology for Great Salt Lake Minerals. “Today we are submitting a plan that will produce the crop nutrients that America’s food growers need, benefit Utah’s economy and is sustainable for the lake’s ecology.”
When the company's original expansion plan was unveiled four years ago, it was met with outrage by lake advocacy groups, birdwatchers and other community groups that said the expansion was so big it would cause irreparable harm to the lake's ecosystem.
"(Great Salt Lake Minerals) is one of six operating extractive industries on the lake, and this was just one example of a vision for one company," said Lyn de Freitas, executive director of Friends of Great Salt Lake. "Who knows what is going to come forward from other companies? It was frighteningly huge."
Friends of Great Salt Lake and other groups met with Great Salt Lake Minerals repeatedly in discussions on aspects of the plan de Freitas said were "untenable."
"We had extreme concerns about any development at Bear River Bay, and that is obviously showing up in their new proposal," she said.
The company's revision of its expansion will help preserve the unique value of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem, de Freitas added.
"Obviously, (Great Salt Lake Minerals) heard the concerns from Friends, the community and lake users," she said. "They should be applauded. … Overall, they are reducing the footprint they are going to create on the lake, increase the efficiency of their operations so they don’t loose as much product, and they're seeking the water rights. They are all steps in the right direction."
The components of the plan include a built-in review process for each phase, which would have to meet pre-established criteria before being launched. The company said it needs to expand to meet growing demand for its product, which helps plants resist disease, drought and pests.
Great Salt Lake Minerals was able to scale back its expansion plans by boosting operational efficiencies, allowing less of its product to be lost in the manufacturing process. It also plans to return unused minerals to the lake more quickly, which will benefit salinity levels.
In an era of protracted and costly litigation among advocacy groups, industry and government, de Freitas said she is heartened by the compromised reached with Great Salt Lake Minerals.
"Our hope is that this becomes more of the standard," she said, "that when various industries come forward with proposals that are clearly going to impact the system, that they really do take the time to sit down and invite an open dialogue."
Great Salt Lake Minerals spokesman Dave Hyams said the company will have its revised plan for expansion detailed in an environmental analysis. The review will be available for public comment and the topic of several meetings.