Potash: Saskatchewan’'s Red Gold

A metal cage rockets us a kilometre toward the earth’s core. The heavy door rolls upward, revealing a “foyer” of reddish brown ore. We have arrived at PotashCorp’s underground city west of Lanigan, Saskatchewan. Heavy 27° Celsius air, tinged with a slight vinegary aroma, permeates our nostrils, reminding us why more than half the mine’s employees have kept coming underground for two and three decades – sheltered from bone-chilling prairie winds.

We trundle into diesel-fired Toyota land cruisers adapted for underground work. Empty windshields encourage a film of salty dust to settle into hair and safety goggles as we are whisked through tunnels. Cruisers hum; ventilation fans roar as we pass; a 200-tonne Marietta Miner chirps in the distance. The Miners’ giant rotors whittle a two-car garage into potash ore, using the conventional long room and pillar mining method to carve out more than 10 tonnes a minute. Above us, 54-inch ore belts are suspended out of reach of the heaving floor.

Saskatchewan’s potash story began millions of years ago when giant inland seas evaporated, leaving behind rich beds of mineral salts, now 1000 metres below ground. Few knew of potash’s presence; fewer understood its value.

In 1917, the Weyburn Review published an article that read in part, “What is believed to be the largest deposit of potash on the North American continent has been located in the immediate vicinity of Weyburn and if . . . the deposit bears out present indications, one of the greatest problems of the munitions, glass and fertilizer industries will have been solved.” Despite much development work apparently being done, the project was scrapped without explanation. The sudden decision left behind much speculation – including whether potash was actually discovered and whether investors had been German.

In 1942 potash was uncovered in an exploratory well near Radville; in 1946, oil drillers near Unity found potash. It would be several years before anyone attempted to reach the ore, and almost another decade before continuous production could begin.

“The first potash development in Saskatchewan started in 1951 . . . at Alsask,” said Garth W. Moore, President, PCS Potash, Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan Inc. (Potash Corp). “They started to sink the first shaft, ran into the Blairmore (a vast underground water-bearing layer) and couldn’t get through it. They lost the shaft and basically lost the ability to get into the mine.”

Potash Company of America had more success, but the challenge was not over. “They began at the Patience Lake operation near Saskatoon,” said Moore. “They got down to the potash horizon in 1958 and started production. But then due to the leakage in the shaft area because of the Blairmore, they were chased out of the mine and had to rehabilitate the shaft area and the shaft. They got back into production in 1965.” Patience Lake converted to solution-mining in 1988.

In the 1960s, the Blairmore Ring unlocked Saskatchewan’s potash industry potential. Laying the Ring involved temporarily freezing the underground water, digging a few metres at a time, then inserting and sealing cast iron rings. Up to 100 28-tonne rings were stacked to create the watertight shaft. Today, a monument to those gargantuan efforts stands at Saskatoon’s John G. Diefenbaker International Airport.

“The Esterhazy K1 mine used the freezing method which was developed in Germany,” said Moore. “That’s the first successful method to get through the Blairmore. They began production in 1962 and have been producing continuously since then.”

A 32-year veteran of the industry, Moore was not involved in developing the Blairmore Ring, but did work on its repairs. He saw Saskatchewan mines become the most highly automated worldwide; yet much remained unchanged.

Early technology was borrowed from the United States and Germany. The first potash operations began in Germany in the 1800s. After the WWI, Germany could no longer supply potash to the US so the American industry became established, bringing its know-how to Canada.

“It was state-of-the-art technology at that time,” said Moore.

“The hoists that were installed in the early days . . . are still in service now,” he said. “We’ve updated the technology, gone to computer control and changed the electrical systems, but the physical hoists themselves are the same ones that were installed in the ‘60s.” The hoists, said Moore, are “a critical part of all the operations and all operations treat them with kid gloves.”

The Marietta Miners are also original. “The boring machines that were installed in the mines in the early days are the ones we are still using now,” said Moore. “After four to five million tonnes, we completely take them apart underground and rebuild them again so they’re just like new. The backup equipment has changed because of changes in technology, but the basic boring machines are still constant.”

Machines are serviced underground wherever possible. At surface, moisture would mix with potash residue and, like the Wonderful One-hoss Shay, equipment would rapidly disintegrate. Equipment that is brought above ground is immediately sandblasted to remove salt.

Mining depths are also stable. “The potash beds in Saskatchewan are basically horizontal and flat lying,” said Moore. “It’s a fairly constant depth at about 1000 metres.”

Even potash prices have remained historically stable, but in 2004 supply and demand started an upward trend. Despite growing demand, there is little concern about shortage. “If you took all the potash in Saskatchewan and the various mining methods, it’s in the tens of hundreds of years, thousands of years. . . . We anticipate we can mine for about 100 years from the existing shafts we have,” said Moore. “That’s inside our existing lease,” but leases are artificial boundaries that can be extended.

Like the shaft floors, environmental policy is gradually shifting. “As new technology comes along, we adopt the best technology and just keep moving with the times and getting better,” said Moore. “But there’s been very good environmental regulations in the province right from the start. The potash mines here operate on a zero discharge basis. That means that within our waste management area where we store our waste salts and control our waste brine, we are not allowed to discharge anything. So they are basically a self-contained unit.”

In Germany, originally “they were allowed to discharge brine directly into the river. That caused all sorts of problems,” said Moore, and in Russia today, “the regulations aren’t as stringent as here.”

Saskatchewan has one of the world’s richest, most extensive potash deposits, with an estimated total 107 billion tonnes of recoverable KCl or 72.5 billion tonnes K2O. Currently, Saskatchewan produces more potash than any other country, is the world’s largest potash-producing region and holds more than 40% of world reserves.

Provincial residents reap rich benefits from these deposits. In 2004, PotashCorp alone employed 1400, expending $148 million in payroll and benefits. It paid $234 million in provincial taxes, purchased 204,000 thousand cubic metres of natural gas and 707 million kWh of electricity. Provincially, PotashCorp spent $175 million on materials and services. In Saskatchewan, potash mining and milling employ more than 3000 people directly, and another three to four thousand indirectly.

PotashCorp operates five Saskatchewan mines (Allan, Cory, Lanigan, Patience Lake and Rocanville). Other Saskatchewan mines are operated by Agrium Inc. (Vanscoy) and Mosaic Potash (Colonsay, Esterhazy and Belle Plaine.) In 1970, Rocanville was the last Saskatchewan mine to come into production.

The name “potash” comes from the original method of extraction. Potassium in the form of manure and ashes, was used as a fertilizer as early the third century BC. The alkaline substance leached from wood ashes was called “pot ash,” named after the iron pots in which it was made.

Today, potash is the name used for various soluble salts that contain potassium; Saskatchewan’s potash-bearing ore is principally Sylvinite (39% KCl, 56% NaCl, 5% Clay). Potash is used agriculturally for fertilizer and feed, and industrially for computer screens, water softeners, soaps and de-icers. Worldwide, PotashCorp is the largest fertilizer enterprise, producing potash, phosphate and nitrogen – with a potash capacity 50% greater than the next largest producer.

Created by: Shirley Collingridge, Wordsmith