Salt at the source: A day in a Lake Huron mine – by Amy Pataki (Toronto Star – August 16, 2014)

The Toronto Star has the largest circulation in Canada. The paper has an enormous impact on federal and Ontario politics as well as shaping public opinion.

We visited the world’s largest salt mine, following the mineral from the tunnels under Lake Huron to our dinner tables and driveways.

GODERICH—Here’s a funny thing about road salt: In its rawest form, it is as slippery as ice. They know this down in the world’s largest operating salt mine, a four-hour drive from Toronto in the pretty town of Goderich.

The mine is 533 metres beneath the surface of the Earth, almost as deep as the CN Tower is high, and tunnels 7 kilometres underneath Lake Huron. It’s owned by Sifto Canada. Visitors are rare.

It’s a strangely beautiful environment, a crystal catacomb of glittering walls and surprisingly sweet air. Salt is everywhere, as thick pillars holding up the 20-metre ceiling and as floating particles that coat the skin and lips.
Salt is also thick underfoot. The exposed seam is rink slick. Miners lay down crushed salt for traction.

“We are standing on product,” says operations manager Mark Rowe. “It should be in a bag, and we’ll get there.”

Bagged or bulk, salt makes our winter roads safe and our summer barbecues tasty. The Goderich mine and its sister evaporation plant (where brine is turned into solid sodium chloride) meet age-old needs with modern technology. Here’s how the grains travel from the ground to your shaker or driveway.

Humans have sought salt for millennia, valuing it as a currency — Roman soldiers were paid in salt — and, as author Mark Kurlansky points out, using it in ancient times to bind contracts.

The salt in Goderich was discovered by accident. In 1866, drillers looking for oil beside the Maitland River hit rock salt instead. It was a valuable commodity, a preservative in a time before refrigeration.

Soon, 10 companies were pouring water into wells, hauling up buckets of the resulting brine, and then evaporating it in hot tub-sized iron cauldrons. Historic photos capture a forest of wooden derricks. It was a boom.

Today, Sifto Canada is still extracting brine to make 95,000 or so tonnes of food-grade salt a year. These products — table salt, animal licks, water softeners, swimming pool sanitizers — are free of the stones and impurities in road salt. The plant also bags 110,000 tonnes of deicing salt from the mine a year, including the granules we sprinkle on our slippery sidewalks.

“We’re stockpiling even more,” says plant manager Dan Loebach.

Both the plant and the nearby mine tap an ancient seabed that extends to Windsor, where competitor Morton Salt has a plant.

The Sifto Canada mine opened in 1959 and yields mostly road salt, more than 6.3 million tonnes. The company pays the province about $16,000 a year plus royalties for a mineral lease that expires in 2022. Parent company Compass Minerals, a public firm based in Kansas, predicts another 120 years of salt mining in Goderich.

On the surface are storage sheds and elevator shafts in a jaunty blue that pops against the grey Lake Huron on a cloudy day. The buildings were repainted after damage from a tornado that swept through Goderich in 2011, killing a mine worker and injuring 37 citizens while ripping up the town of 8,000.

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