LINDBERGH , Alta- It's been a staple in the eastern portion of the County of St. Paul since 1948, but within the next couple of years the Linbergh salt plant will likely look very different, as the facility moves to permanently close this summer - and a complete reclamation of the site takes place over the next few years.
An official decision to close the facility was made on June 1, with staff being notified on June 3. The Windsor salt plant is located along Highway 646 and is currently owned by Morton Salt. The company's head office is located in Chicago, Illinois.
The decision leading to the closure wasn't an easy one, says Jacob Bialik, evaporative operations and project portfolio management leader with Morton Salt, speaking with Lakeland This Week on June 22. He acknowledged that the closure will have a big impact on the community and many individuals.
But, the impact of the closure will be felt beyond the facility and its employees.
"First off, I would say that the County (of St. Paul) is very sad to see the salt plant cease operations," says County of St. Paul CAO Sheila Kitz. "The salt plant has been a pillar in our community for almost 80 years. We know that there are approximately 50 employees there that will lose their jobs and our hearts go out to them as they deal with this reality as their employer closes down."
Kitz explains that the closure will affect the County's revenue stream, "as the taxation from this company was significant. While the assessment will not all be lost, we anticipate that it will be less than 50 per cent by 2023."
Terri Hampson, Elk Point Chamber of Commerce president, offered a few thoughts on the closure, saying, “The salt plant has been a fixture in this region and really a part of our identity to some extent. It is unfortunate and very disappointing to see it close down and people displaced.”
Elk Point Mayor Parrish Tung echoed similar sentiments.
“Windsor Salt plant has been a major employer for our region. They had contributed to the growth of our region for years. It is with regret to hear of their closing. However, with the proven reserves, it is our hope that another investor may be interested. We bid a fond farewell and thank the company for their contribution to the growth of our region,” said the mayor.
A financial decision
Ultimately, the decision to shut down the plant was a financial one.
The unfortunate news is that the facility hasn’t been profitable for about four or five years. There were excessively high production costs, and the company wasn't meeting the budgeted requirements, explains Bialik.
Decisions made five, 10 or 20 years ago played a role in the ultimate decision, he noted.
“It’s a difficult situation,” he said, adding, it was strictly a financial and business decision, and not the result of the efforts of the people who work at the facility.
“We’re in difficult times. Inflation rates are at an all-time high,” said Bialik, adding energy costs have been increasing, and the facility itself is located in a rather remote area.
“It’s difficult for us to economically ship a very heavy product." In the end, salt is a commodity product with a rather low selling price attached to it.
When asked about a timeline for the closure, Bialik said all production will be shut down by Aug. 1, 2022, which was just five weeks away.
"The majority of the staff will be laid off at that time," he confirmed. When speaking with Lakeland This Week, Bialik noted the facility had 47 active employees.
A small skeleton crew will be kept past the Aug. 1 date to load the product that will be left over the next 30 days. Then, work will be done to isolate the operation and leave it in a safe, suitable condition. Beyond that, there will be an even smaller crew left to do reclamation.
The intent is to take the property back to a green field location, says Bialik. He noted there is a possibility that those plans could change if another party is interested in purchasing the facility, but it would not be sold to a competitor. At the time of the interview with Lakeland This Week, there were no interested parties.
And so, the plans are likely to demolish the buildings and take the site back to its natural state over the next couple of years.
Near the salt plant is the small community of Riverview. Known as a "company town," it was originally built for salt plant employees.
"As such, the salt plant also provided water through their water treatment plant to the residents of Riverview. They also provided wastewater services and even some recreation – as there is an old curling rink still standing in the community," explains Kitz. "Over the years, there are fewer homes at Riverview, with the majority of them being privately owned now."
According to Bialik, there are about a dozen homes in Riverview.
The fact that the company provided utilities to residents is a challenge, admits Bialik. And some unique situations exist in Riverview. He noted that it appears the County of St. Paul is not interested in taking on the water treatment plant that exists, but residents have already been making the shift to hauling water and installing holding tanks.
The company was also providing natural gas to the homes, and that service will also cease. Both water and gas services, as they are, will stop tentatively this summer. Bialik says Morton Salt does not intend to shut off services until situations have been rectified. And while the supply of water is a bit more straightforward, the supply of natural gas may not be as easy.
“The gas is a little more challenging,” says Bialik. Morton Salt has been in communication with APEX and the County of St. Paul, trying to figure out how quickly they can get natural gas piped to those homes. “We’re not going to shut anybody’s gas off.”
According to Kitz, the County has been working with residents to come up with a strategy to deal with water and sewer systems that were past the end of life.
"The residents have been transitioned from a wastewater collection system to holding tanks and are currently looking after the disposal of their own wastewater. They also now all have cisterns for fresh water. These were put in place for when the water supply agreement the County and salt plant entered into in 2009 came to an end in 2026," explained Kitz. "The agreement has a clause in it that says that the agreement would remain in effect until 2026 or when the salt plant ceased operations."
This means the agreement will come to an end sooner than originally anticipated. And unfortunately, the changes may result in an increased cost of water for residents.
"We also know that the salt plant has provided natural gas to the residents of Riverview. This was also provided to a number of farms in the vicinity of the salt plant," says Kitz. She confirmed that the municipality has reached out to APEX.
"This is not something that the County will be involved in going forward, however, we felt it was necessary to start the process to ensure gas supply to these residents," said Kitz.
Further, the CAO noted that Regional Economic Development Officer Linda Sallstrom from STEP Economic Development Alliance has been working with the salt plant, the County assessors, Alberta HUB, and Invest Alberta to understand the situation and assets at the facility, in an attempt to market those assets and try to bring another industry or business into the area.