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Land-speed racers begin negotiations to return salt to the Bonneville Salt Flats

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Photo by Rijel.

Despite a warning from a leading Bonneville scientist that it might not work, the land-speed racers behind Save the Salt have opened talks with a local mining company to return as much as 12 million tons of salt to the Bonneville Salt Flats over the next decade.

“This conversation has never happened before,” said Louise Ann Noeth, a spokeswoman for the Save the Salt Alliance, one of the groups involved in the discussions. “Everybody for years has blamed the miners for the problems with the salt flats — there’s no question they’re taking the salt, but they’ve done so legally through the Bureau of Land Management — but we figured why not try to develop an atmosphere of trust between the two biggest users of the salt flats: the racers and the mining community.”

Similar to a salt brine pumping program that ran from 1997 to 2002, and that returned on average 1.2-million tons of salt to the salt flats per year, the initiative at the heart of the current discussions would redistribute at least that amount per year over the next 10 years.

“The program should help better understand Bonneville’s complex geology while simultaneously improving the racing surface,” Noeth wrote in a press release announcing the talks, which began earlier this year. “The focus will be on sustaining that volume over a longer timeframe and carefully measuring the results.”

The salt would come from the piles of residual salt from Intrepid Potash’s mining operations on the south side of Interstate 80, opposite the location of the Bonneville Speedway. The mining operation, which has lasted for decades on the federally owned land with Bureau of Land Management permission, extracts potash for use as fertilizer and leaves behind mounds of nearly pure salt miles long.

A widely cited 1988 U.S. Geological Survey study of the salt flats found that “brine withdrawal is a major cause of salt loss from the crust” and resulted in a loss of 975,000 tons of salt per year and 55-million tons total from 1960 to 1988.

“No one in the racing community is puzzled about where the salt went,” Noeth said. “We don’t need any studies to tell us that.”

An ongoing University of Utah study of the shrinking Bonneville Salt Flats — intended to take into account multiple variables that might affect salt levels from weather patterns to microbes — also points to human activity as a possible culprit, though one of many. Climate change, natural geologic processes, and even the impact of racers on the salt flats may also play a part, according to University of Utah geologist Brenda Bowen, who is leading the study.

“To think that one part of the land use isn’t having an impact is overlooking the complexity of the system,” Bowen told the Salt Lake Tribune. “(The landscape is) absolutely always changing, and many of these changes are linked to human activities, including racing.”

In addition, Bowen noted that there’s no evidence that pumping brine from the Intrepid Potash piles is an effective way to reverse the shrinking salt flats.

While Noeth said no formal study reviewed the earlier salt replenishment program’s effects on the thickness and extent of the salt crust, she can point to faster speeds during that period — but not afterward — as a positive result.

“In 2001, nobody thought we had to study it because we had a solid and safe long course,” she said. “If the crust is thicker and the area to run is longer, what data do you need if you’re not breaking through the crust, if you’re not spinning out, and if you’re getting faster speeds?”

While the five-year salt replenishment program was conducted as an experiment in conjunction with the Bureau of Land Management, Intrepid Potash voluntarily continued the program to a lesser extent from 2005 to 2012 (returning about 380,000 tons of salt per year) and then under BLM order since 2012 as a condition of the company’s lease. According to Noeth, less than 600,000 tons of salt per year currently make their way back to the salt flats via the same pump and drainage ditch system that channels raw brine from the salt flats to the mining operation.

The Save the Salt Coalition and the Utah Alliance recently announced another sort of salt replenishment program, “One Wheel at a Time,” aimed at reducing the incidental loss of salt accumulated on racers’ and spectators’ shoes and tires.

To fund the 10-year program, the racers and Intrepid Potash will turn to Congressional representatives to draft appropriations legislation once the groups tally up estimated costs for the program.

A known issue for decades, the shrinking salt flats came to international attention after poor salt conditions caused the cancellation of Bonneville Speedweek two years in a row. A growing chorus — including the FIA and the state of Utah — has since called on the BLM to restore the salt flats. Speedweek racers have reported less than ideal conditions both last year and this year.

The University of Utah study of the Bonneville Salt Flats is due in 2018.