Man, machine wrest salt from the earth

Sunday, September 27, 1987

Open your mouth and you taste salt in the air. Underfoot, it feels like wet sand.

This is the Carey salt mine, where light glitters briefly on the walls before being swallowed by the translucent crystals of halite. in a salt mine there is no day or night, no seasons and no rain _ no weather, period. There's just salt, and darkness, and a landscape that seems closer to the moon than to Kansas.

In this sterile environment, always 68 degrees Fahrenheit, always 48 percent humidity, seven employees of the Carey Salt Co. put in their 40-hour weeks. They extract and crush salt that will be used to clear roads, feed cattle, tan hides and recharge water softeners.

Salt is extracted from the Carey mine with what is called the "room and pillar" method, in which square areas of salt 40 feet on a side are left behind by the miners at set intervals to support the mine roof. Because the pillars remain, only about 75 percent of the salt on the mine level is removed.

At the "face," or working area, salt is mined in five steps.

The entire operation takes only seven workers: the undercutter, driller, powder man, crusher, two scoop drivers, and a maintenance man to keep the equipment operational.

In the days just after the mine opened in 1923 dozens of men were employed down here. As recently as 1969, there were a full 19. But technology has changed the methods of production, just as it has altered the uses to which salt is put.

Instead of miniature trains hauling salt cars through the halite halls, the workers use modern diesel- or electrically powered vehicles. No gasoline engines are allowed; should an accident occur, diesel fuel will burn but not explode.

The Carey subterranean motor pool includes a big blue John Deere tractor and a sporty white pickup with the roof chopped off. To get them into the mine, they had to be taken apart, hauled down piece by piece on the skip, and then welded back together.

And once down, they stay down _ every piece of equipment Carey Salt Co. has ever used to extract salt is still tucked away in some corner of the mine. There is, they point out, plenty of room.

Besides, if you think a winter of driving on road salt is hard on cars ...

"Salt attracts moisture. If you took this upstairs, it would rust out probably in 30 days," said Lee Graham, mine foreman, gesturing to the pickup. in the salt mine there is so little humidity that rust will never be a problem.

Compared to coal, gold or other mineral mining, salt work is positively cushy. There is no "white lung" equivalent of coal miners' diseases; room-and-pillar mining gives workers plenty of space to breathe and move, and many of the hazards that plague other operations simply do not apply.

There has never been a fire in the Carey mine, and although each man carries a "self-rescuer" gas mask designed to eliminate carbon monoxide from the air until the wearer can reach safety, the miners have never had to use them.

In a coal mine all the good, senior workers get jobs above ground. But salt mining is comfortable enough that the senior people are under and workers with less experience stay topside.

A power line from the surface brings down electricity at 2,300 volts; it is stepped down to 440 volts to run power equipment and lights in the mine.

With all the power, the room and the perfect climate, it's hard not to speculate that all this ground could somehow be put to use. Graham joked about a restaurant or a casino buried under Hutchinson.

"A dirt bike'd be great down here," he said. "Unless you jumped real high and hit your head on a ceiling."

On a lunch table sits a round can of Carey Salt, provided by the management free of charge. It appears to be several years old. A miner on his lunch break reaches over and hefts it, then puts it back down on the table.

"It's been here awhile. It's still pretty heavy," he says.

Well, it's not like there's a shortage.