Potash (potassium chloride) is a fertilizer in high demand right now — especially with the push to turn corn and other plant products into ethanol for energy. Although the United States imports much of its potash, Intrepid Mining LLC, headquartered in Denver, is busy making the most out of its mines in Utah and New Mexico. The largest U.S. producer of potash, Intrepid initially grew its company from its oil and gas parent company by taking over mines other potash companies gave up on. By injecting them with creative new ways to extract the mineral, encouraging employee input, and offering excellent pay and benefits, Intrepid is bringing new energy to a domestic industry many thought was dying.
Intrepid’s three facilities in Carlsbad, N.M., offer fascinating lessons in both mining and chemical extraction. Between the north, east, and west facilities run 25 mi. (40 km) of underground conveyors that handle six different grades of ore: three of potash (also known as sylvite) and three of langbeinite (lang, for short) — a potassium magnesium sulfate mineral excellent for fertilizing citrus crops, vegetables, and tobacco.
If it sounds complex, it’s because it is. It takes a lot of equipment to mine and process the ore — both above and below ground. And given the abrasive quality of potash and especially of lang, equipment reliability and bullet-proof design are two high-priority topics, especially the equipment’s electrical system. If a piece of equipment doesn’t have highly dependable electronics and systems to minimize dust contamination, it simply doesn’t last long. The wheel loaders of choice are Kawasaki.
“Primarily we are using them in two applications,” explained Randy Foote, general manager, Intrepid Potash-New Mexico. “Their main use is in the load-out process in our large warehouses where we hold up to 160,000 tons of product. And we use them to feed off-spec product back into the plants.
“I know those applications don’t sound that tough, but we’ll use a wheel loader eight to 12 hours a day. During heavy shipping seasons, they’re used 24 hours a day. One crew comes off and another comes on, so if that loader is not working, the whole process breaks down. It is very important that we have high availability.”
Intrepid has tried a number of wheel loader brands in their dusty and abrasive environment. But over the last 18 months, they’ve only spec’ed Kawasaki.
“We rely on our end-users, in this case, our maintenance people, to spec out our equipment,” explained Rudy Dominguez, corporate director of materials. “They let us know what their preference is. We’ll try to present them with other options, then we’ll jointly make the final call. At our east and north facilities, they prefer Kawasaki.”
“We’ve had better availability with Kawasaki than the other brands,” continued Foote. “We track our equipment. We know how much time and money we’re spending on it. We had another brand of loader in here and noticed, through our maintenance program, that there was an unusually high number of problems. Our first two Kawasakis were rentals, with no chemical package. And there were no major complaints.”
“We have to have dependability,” said John Switzer, equipment planner, as he enters a cavernous product storage building filled with different grades of potash. “If the wheel loaders were to go down, we’d be in trouble. They push the materials over the grates to feed our conveyor systems down below for load-out. We ship out by train and by truck. The Kawasakis also have to keep things cleaned up in our storage buildings. Talk about a dusty environment.”
When Intrepid decided to get two more units, they chose to equip the 80ZV-2s with the special Chemical Application Package. The package offers special protection for the electrical systems, cooling systems, and hydraulic systems to increase durability and reliability in corrosive environments. Use of this package has helped improve availability even more, and Intrepid is consulting with its local Kawasaki dealer for additional maintenance ideas and training to further reduce issues caused by the harsh environment.
“We use our Kawasakis to do a variety of things,” concluded Switzer. “Beyond the plant environment, it is critical that we keep our retention ponds in top shape on a weekly basis. When one of the Kawasaki loaders has free time, we use it to maintain the dikes as well as other parts of the pond efforts, especially when our dozer might be down. Dependability is everything.”
Intrepid Potash-New Mexico, LLC is serviced by Nueces Power & Equipment (NPE), El Paso, Texas.