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After plans for further salt flats study, Bonneville racers accuse BLM of dragging its feet

“We came away from that meeting bitterly disappointed,” said Louise Ann Noeth, spokeswoman for the Utah Alliance, an organization created to represent Bonneville racers.

After Bureau of Land Management officials urged patience and recommended another study of the shrinking salt at last week’s Bonneville Salt Flats summit in Salt Lake City, racers in attendance at the summit said they felt undermined by the bureau and that bureau officials weren’t acting fast enough to save the historic speedway.

Last week’s Bonneville Salt Flats summit in Salt Lake City was intended to get every concerned party – BLM officials, state and local officials, miners, scientists, and racers – around the same table to agree on plans to restore the salt flats, something the Utah government called for back in March. However, while BLM officials and the Bonneville racing community have agreed on the scope and importance of the issue, they emerged from the meeting with vastly different plans on how to address it.

The former noted that despite years of research establishing that the flats have indeed shrunk in size and in thickness, the underlying causes for the shrinkage remain unknown. According to a Salt Lake Tribune article on the meeting, scientists studying the flats aren’t sure whether they are a geologically ephemeral phenomenon or a more permanent one – that is, whether the shrinkage is part of a natural cycle or was caused by human activity, including mining. Thus the researchers aren’t sure whether any action taken now would harm or help the salt flats. A University of Utah study of the flats, which is expected to provide data that could answer that question and which the BLM wants to review before determining how to fix Bonneville, isn’t expected until 2018.

By then, Noeth said, the salt flats could be gone entirely. As noted in a position paper for the land-speed racing community that the Utah Alliance, and Save The Salt presented at the meeting, studies on the salt shrinkage date back to the early 1970s. Indeed, the position paper quoted a 1979 BLM study that noted “Weather cycles may partly explain changes on the Bonneville salt crust. But the activities of man, such as withdrawing brine and constructing surface-drainage barriers, have altered the hydrologic environment and have had a profound effect on the salt crust.”

The paper also quoted BLM Recreational Lands Manager Gregg Morgan who, in a 1989 interview, said that at existing salt depletion rates “in ten years possibly there will not be enough salt to race on and in thirty years not enough salt to sustain what we call the Bonneville Salt Flats.”

Citing an engineering study of the salt flats prepared by Bingham Engineering for the Utah Alliance, Noeth said the Bonneville racing community believes the best way to restore the flats is to accelerate the salt laydown effort, in which the salt that’s considered a byproduct of the nearby potash mining operations is pumped back onto the racing surface. The existing salt laydown effort, which returned 5 million tons of salt to the Bonneville speedway, began in 1997 but tapered off after 2002.

“To me, saving the salt means taking the piles on the south side of Interstate 80 and moving them to the north side,” Noeth said.

However, the Salt Lake Tribune article quoted Eric Rogers, a plant manager for Intrepid Potash, which has mined the salt flats for decades, who said he didn’t think that Intrepid could do that, nor should it without further understanding the salt flats’ geological cycles.

Noeth said the Utah Alliance “still will participate and we still will try to get this fixed,” though she also promised a “war of words” should the BLM continue to do nothing about the situation other than call for more studies. “We realize now that we require help from legislators to get something accomplished,” she said.

This year’s SCTA/BNI Bonneville Speed Week is scheduled for August 13-19, while the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association’s World of Speed is set for September 10-13. Observers say it’s too early to know whether there will be sufficient salt for racing this year.


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