UK could be home to largest potash mine in the world

IF you are not farming in north-east Yorkshire or do not work ‘in the City’, you might not be up to speed with developments at the York Potash mining project.

Now owned by Sirius Minerals, this potentially massive contributor to the national and local economies is all but ready - pending final planning approval this spring - to sink the 1,500-metre (5,000ft) twin mine shafts.

By 2017, the company will have begun mining polyhalite (‘many salts’), which is a versatile source of the plant nutrient, potash.

Although ICL’s British subsidiary Cleveland Potash has now begun mining a proportion of polyhalite from its 40-year-old Boulby mine in the same area, York Potash says its own operation will become the biggest mine in the world.

The multi-nutrient mineral it will produce contains four of the six macro-nutrients required for plant growth (potassium, sulphur, magnesium and calcium). It can be used to produce sulphate of potash.

Production in the early years will be about five million tonnes per year, building towards a potential 12m tonnes capacity in another 10 years. Test drillings have confirmed the best location for the main shaft.

The mined mineral will be transported in solution by underground 600mm (2ft) lined steel pipeline for processing in Middlesborough. This has yet to be installed.

Royalties

More than 300 landowners in the North York Moors National Park, under whose land the deep potash deposits are, will also derive a royalty from the project - 2.5 per cent of the production’s annual revenues, which are expected to run into tens of millions of pounds - when their area is being mined.

They will all, however, receive a lease payment (base plus hectareage) from day one.

The local community will benefit by way of a royalty - 0.5 per cent of revenue - paid into and administered by an independent fund, the York Potash Foundation. It could be as much as £3m during phase one, expected to cover two years or so, until a 5m tonne production is reached.

Commercial director of York Potash Luke Jarvis said growth export markets - China, India and Brazil - were obvious key targets for sales, but the mine did effectively guarantee a source of the mineral for several hundred years for UK farming.

The UK, in isolation and by comparison with other countries, was a mere 4mt fertiliser market where the dynamics were changing.

Now, about 80 per cent of the business was in the hands of just three companies, said Mr Jarvis.

There were plenty of other emerging markets where the drive for increased food production would, in turn, create increased demand for plant nutrients.

Marketing would include the production of large-scale granulated polyhalite, both as a direct application fertiliser and as a main source of potassium for the production of NPK compounds.

The options would exist to produce sulphate of potash from the polyhalite ore at a later stage.

However, an important aspect of the marketing strategy was the agronomy trials the company was conducting with partners around the world on a range of different crops.

The aim is to evaluate the potential of polyhalite, compared with other potash sources, to improve yields and the possibility its use could enable a reduction in N and P applications.

Potash mining in the North York Moors

  • Potash deposits under the North York Moors were formed some 260 million years ago when this particular area of the earth’s crust was closer to the tropics and subject to repeated seawater flooding and evaporation
  • This is the only area in the UK where it exists
  • Dinosaurs came and went, and subsequent layers of deposits buried the potash deeper and deeper
  • Three beds of potash discovered ‘by chance’ during oil prospecting in 1939
  • After the war, potash reserves were confirmed in the area
  • During the 1960s, three planning applications for mines were approved - only one went ahead in the 1970s (Cleveland Potash, Boulby Mine) and is still operational
  • Now, with increased demand for fertiliser, there is renewed interest and York Potash says its mine will be the largest in the world (for polyhalite)
  • Although in a National Park, operations are relatively unobtrusive and well screened
  • n The UK is currently highly dependent upon potash imports - almost one-third of the 506,000t used

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