House committee urges feds to save salt flats

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For Allison Volk Dean exceeding land speeds of 200 mph in race cars at the Bonneville Salt Flats isn’t just a stunt, it’s a family affair. “I’ve raced out there since I was born, it’s a family legacy.”

Dean is a member of the Save the Salt foundation. The organization’s mission is to protect the Bonneville Salt Flats located near Utah’s northwest boarder with Nevada. The organization is the moving force behind HCR 8, sponsored by Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, which urges the Bureau of Land Management to increase efforts to restore the salt flats. The salt flats are disappearing due to potash mining.

Many Utahns consider the Bonneville Salt Flats to be a unique part of Utah history. The vast open area covered in a layer of salt is perfect for setting land speed records. The phenomenon and setting is so unique to Utah that the area has been the site for setting many world-records. But the salt flats are shrinking.

David Boyle
Members of the Save the Salt foundation meet at the State Capitol Photo: David Boyle

“At one time we had as much as 14 miles to race on,” said Larry Volk, founder of the Save the Salt foundation, to the Utah Senate of Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee. “Now we’re lucky to find five to six-and-a-half miles of salt to drive on.”

Although the cause of the shrinking salt flats is debated, with some suggesting weather as a contributing factor, mining is considered to be the major factor in the shrinking salt flats. Potash mining companies extract brine ponds that form on the salt flats in the winter. The process results in salt as a waste product. As a result the salt fields shrink while tons of salt lays around a few miles down the road as tailings from the mining process.

BYU's Electric Vehicle Racing Team led by Professor Perry Carter during their World Record run at the World of Speed on the Bonneville Salt Flats. The streamliner set a world record of 155 mph in the E1 class. (Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)
BYU’s Electric Vehicle Racing Team led by Professor Perry Carter during their World Record run at the World of Speed on the Bonneville Salt Flats. The streamliner set a world record of 155 mph in the E1 class. (Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

Currently, the BLM manages the permits and requirements for mining companies  in the area. The current permits do require that mining companies return some of the salt they use, but Save the Salt says the current reclamation process is not enough.

Current President of the Save the Salt foundation Dennis Sullivan argues that past efforts to restore the salt flats size were acceptable but current efforts are not enough. “In 1998 they pumped as much as 1.9 million tons of salt brine back into the salt flats, currently (mine) owners this past year pumped back around 370,000 tons,” Sullivan said.

Although the house resolution is unanimously supported the legislation itself does not have legal effect and merely encourages the BLM to take stronger actions. Advocate Lloyd Parry recognizes that efforts from Utah and Nevada state governments are helpful. “We’ve also had help from organizations to lobby in Washington D.C.,” Parry said.

Save the Salt feels they are working against the clock to restore the flats “If we wait they won’t be the Bonneville Salt Flats, it’ll become the Bonneville Mud Flats” Sullivan said.

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