This is Part I of a series that I wrote for the Bonaire Reporter…
I am standing on a platform 50-feet above a snow-white terrain deep in the tropics. Below, massive front-end loaders dump tons of crystals upon a conveyor belt that are rapidly elevated to where I stand. The material is then separated into what are called ‘sun gems’, large pieces that shuffle off to the right, and ‘screen coarse’, smaller particles, which move to the left. Moments later both types cascade down to earth forming orderly, cone-shaped mountains. Frenklin Pietersz, a Cargill production worker walks up and hands me a shiny clump and says in Papiamentu, “This is the crystal gold of Bonaire! Welcome to the salt works.”
Since 1997 Cargill has been operating the salt operation that occupies nearly 20% of the island. Forbes Magazine lists the corporation as the largest privately owned company in the United States. In some ways their operation is very simple, producing a product by harnessing the power of the surrounding environmental elements—seawater, wind and sun. Basically, salt water is pumped into the ponds (historically called pans) mostly by windmills but at times by mechanical pumps. The sun then evaporates the seawater, and what is left behind is salt. In the chemical world this residue is known as NaCl and Bonaire is known worldwide to have some of the purist, 99.6%. In essence, that is what solar salt works is all about—moving water, controlling wind and producing salt. But I soon discovered the process is actually a complex mix of art and science.
“We are like farmers,” claims Gary Rimmey, Cargill’s plant manager. “You plant your crop—that’s the sea water. Then we do everything we can to nurture that crop. We move it around. We manage our saline densities in all the ponds so we can maximize our crop. And then we harvest it, clean it, process it and stack it. Then hope we have a favorable market for it.” Rimmey started working for Cargill in 1977 immediately after graduating college. He worked with soybeans for a decade and later with molasses. That work took him to the Caribbean, as did his next position as environmental health and safety manager. During that time he regularly visited Cargill’s salt works on Bonaire. Since 2011, he has served as plant manager overseeing the entire operation.
“There is a lot of knowledge, wisdom and judgment that goes into making salt,” continues Rimmey. “It takes a team and it’s complicated. There is biology involved in it. That’s what gives the ponds their pink color. We like the pink because it absorbs more heat and that increases evaporation. Managing water levels and monitoring the weather are other important functions. I can teach you how to make salt in 15 minutes, but to get really good at it, it takes a lifetime.”
“The pink water is caused by a halophilic bacterium,” explains Cargill’s biologist, Daniel DeAnda. “Halophilic literally means ‘salt loving’. You don’t find it in the sea because the salinity is too low. But the bacterium thrives here in the ponds due to the higher salinity. When we see that we have a nice pink color, that means that we have a healthy system for producing salt.”
As DeAnda takes me on a tour of the salt works by truck, I learn that the aqua green colored water is called ‘new water’ freshly pumped in from the sea. Cargill brings in seawater from both the east and west coasts. The brown or rust-colored water is concentrated brine that is added to the crystallizer ponds. We soon arrive at such a pond glutted with salt crystals shining like diamonds in the sun. It is harvest day and two busy front end loaders jockey for position to fill an enormous truck that can hold 45 metric tons of salt. That is enough to fill over 1.5 million four-once salt shakers.
Watching this mechanical dance for a few minutes makes me realize that much of salt making involves moving materials. It starts with seawater being repeatedly pumped through a series of condenser ponds where most of the evaporation occurs. These are the largest ponds in the operation. The water is then moved through a series of crystallizer ponds like the one that I now stand upon. It takes about two months before the brine begins to turn into salt. The pond’s hard, black surface resembles the thick black ice of a frozen lake in winter. This compressed salt top easily supports the weight of the harvest machinery. It also provides a relatively clean surface that keeps the salt free of sand and vegetation. The front-end loader operators deftly position their blades to scoop up only the newly formed salt.
“Our salt is very white and it’s naturally white,” continues DeAnda. “We don’t add anything to make it white. We only rinse it with salt water and that’s where this load is headed now. Some of our salt is exported for de-icing roads in North America, but because of its larger size, it’s used for many other things. It’s used for water conditioning, for water softeners in homes and swimming pools. Others use it to make chlorine. It is also used in dyes for the textile industry and the petroleum industry uses it in their processing.”
By day’s end I return to the plant manager’s office. I mention to Gary Rimmey how Daniel DeAnda says he is obsessed with following the rainfall by monitoring the ten weather stations strategically placed around the salt works. I soon learn that that concern is well founded. “Heavy rains are really bad for us. If these ponds fill up with rain, we lose our dikes and our salt floors and we’re wiped out. We try to maintain our levels so this doe not happen. We’re unlike farmers in that respect. Usually, we are hoping that it doesn’t rain.”
Rimmey pauses and then smiles while looking out his office window. In the distance, harvested salt continues to drop from the conveyor belts high in the sky. Several cone-shaped mountains have formed since this morning. That salt now awaits shipment. “I never get tired of watching the salt fall from that machine,” say Rimmey. “It’s a beautiful business.”