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Made In Kern County: Borax Mine

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Posted at 4:21 PM, Apr 28, 2016
and last updated 2016-04-29 12:21:26-04

On the most eastern edge of Kern County, just off Highway 58, sits a desolate desert landscape booming with activity. 

This is all because of what lies below the earth, a mineral used in hundreds of products we all use today.

 

 

It's what brought 23ABC News to the Rio Tinto mining operation just outside the small town of Boron. 

This was the largest Made In Kern County that 23ABC has done and because of that, the crew had to adorn safety equipment to be at the plant.

Jeffrey Stultz, Quality Control Manger at the Rio Tinto Mine said, "This is actually the largest open face mine in the state of California. We operate 365 days a year, and we produce over a million tons of borate product that gets shipped all over the world.” 

All coming from this mine—more than two miles long, and 800 feet deep.

The borate, or borax, will be refined and used in hundreds of products, from smart phone glass screens, home insulation, and glass cookware.

”It's also very important in the agricultural industry," Tim Calahan with 23 ABC News said. "Boron is the leading micro nutrient in plants. It's used in crops all over the world.” 

But it’s most famous use and product—20 mule team borax laundry detergent—still sold in major retail stores.

In 1881, pioneers discovered borates in Death Valley. Crews used teams of 20 mules and giant wagons to move the mineral the 165 miles through the desert, to a waiting railcar in Mojave.

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”I think they’re really surprised at the size of the operation and what's going on," Stultz said.

Stultz took 23ABC News down, deep into the mine, where since 1957 the operation transformed from an underground mine to what it looks like today.

Trying to capture the sheer size of the mine was extremely difficult, and we aboslutely recommend visiting the mine to see the machinery in person.

The second largest shovel in the world sits inside the mine at the Borax Mine, which moves thousands of tons of material each day. 

When you come to work and experience the size of it, you really realize you are part of a big operation,“ Stultz said.

The team at Rio Tinto took 23ABC where no news cameras have been allowed. More than 800 feet below sea level. The facility operates 24 hours a day and has people moving materials all day long.

When you walk around the mine, you see massive trucks hauling away the un-refined borates from deep in the mine.

 

"They’ll be running around the clock to keep the material moving,” Stultz said.

Inside one ofthe refineries is where the material ends up.

Where specialized equipment processes the raw product, to a light, white powdery substance. 

Each year, crews mine up to 22 million tons of unrefined borax, translating into 3-million tons of product ready to ship from this site. 

The plant supplies more than 30% of all the world’s borax.

"We’re continuing to dig so we’ll be continuing to operate this mine for the next 40 years or so, and go another 800 feet down,” Stultz said.

And it all started here, in Kern County.