Before going underground we always do hazard training with the Safety guy. They show us the mine map, where we'll be, the primary and secondary escape routes and how each are marked. We review our self rescuers which will give us an hour of good air to get back out. And we go over the conditions at that mine - gases, roof conditions and any special instructions to remember.
Then we gear up - metatarsal rubber boots, hard hat, mine belt on which we carry the rescuer and battery for the cap light which fits on the hard hat. Every mine has a board where we hang a tag or in this case take a brass tag in our pocket that's numbered matching our number on the sign up list. This way they know who's underground at any given time.
We enter the biggest elevator I've ridden in - capacity for 80 people - an open grated box - and descend slowly about 1500 feet. At the bottom is a huge room with a 20 or 30 foot vaulted ceiling lined with horizontal boards. Diesel CJ 5's, formerly mail delivery jeeps, are the primary source of transportation. 5 of us make several trips to carry all our gear and load the waiting chariot. The safety guy, his assistant and one of our company guys working that mine, are our escorts and never let us out of sight - which is appreciated.
They drive us back about 5 miles through the interconnected web of tunnels that are about 6 feet high. Every 30 feet or so we pass entries leading to other sections. All are marked with big painted numbers. The mine is about 30 miles square and I learned we had traveled under I-80. Once we get to the Longwall, the roof in much higher - about 10 feet. The system is about 800 feet long and we walk under the roof supports. The system lights weren't yet on, so we immediately began setting up our lights - 9 of them - spaced 6 feet or so apart. We fix the lights to magnets which hold strong on the roof supports. Because the system wasn't running yet, we could backlight this time, placing 3 lights mounted low right on their batteries.
I'm used to working in coal so it was very dramatic when we turned on the lights in this Trona mine. It's a light grey and seemed incredibly bright to me. Everything was clean because the system hadn't run. It had a slight sulfur smell but not overpowering. We worked quickly to get our photos and video.
A very important part of all mine visits is handing out stickers. Miners love to put stickers on their hard hats and they are proud of the equipment they run. So, we brought some latest Longwall shearer and roof support stickers.
We try not to overstay our welcome wherever we go. Here, as in most mines, the workers are very cordial but they have a job to do and we are a distraction. We worked about 4 hours and were back in the jeeps heading out.
Reaching the top is a sweet thing. I always end the day with a great respect for the people who work underground every day. They are a special lot reminding me much of firefighters in their connection to one another. While they are very serious about safety and their jobs, they have that same sense of humor I've seen between fire fighters - nicknames and teasing one another.
These folks would want me to tell you about how Trona is used and you use it every day. It's one of the ingredients in glass. It makes laundry detergent and the best grade is refined into baking soda. So, the next time you use those products, think about the hundreds of people working underground in Wyoming making it possible.