Trona hard hit by ‘19’ quake, water controversy

Trona hard hit by ‘19’ quake, water controversyIt is well known that Trona was hard hit by the earthquakes of 2019, then the world was hit with the COVID-19 pandemic, and now Trona is at the center of the Groundwater Authority legal battles. We spoke with the Unofficial Vice Mayor of Trona and two representatives from the Searles Valley Historical Society (SVHS) and learned how the museum is doing and how folks are feeling in the midst of the water issue.

The town’s livelihood has always been dependent upon “The Plant,” no matter who owned it. Andy Ledesma, the Unofficial Vice Mayor of Trona, was born and raised in West End, five miles down the road from Trona. As a man in his early 90s, he remembers a lot of the town’s history. He tells us about the early days, “The plant was owned by AP&CC (American Potash and Chemical Corporation), it was great. It was a company town, and West End was a company town. AP&CC did everything. If you wanted your house painted all you had to do was call Scotty Ross and he would paint it. Of course you had to give him a little bottle of scotch on the side,” he laughs. “Everything was taken care of by the company. In West End they charged us $5 a month and they supplied power and water. In Trona, it was the same thing.”

Not only did the company take care of housing, they also provided entertainment. There were community celebrations for the Fourth of July, an annual Family Day, a recreation hall, train transportation to Trona from Searles Station and West End. Ledesma says, “We also had a circus that used to be in Argus, but they moved it to Valley Wells.”

Then in the late 1960’s, AP&CC sold to Kerr McGee. Ledesma tells us, “They came in here like balls of fire, they serviced the community no problem. Then all of a sudden, overnight, all of the top engineers were out of the plant. In the Catholic Church we lost 40 people that were top engineers. They were sent to Oklahoma City.”

Cathy Heseman, Vice President of SVHS, adds, “The huge layoff was Kerr McGee in the 1980s. They had been here for several years, for whatever reason there were as many as 400 people laid off. It was huge. It just wiped out the town. Then Kerr McGee got out completely. They sold it. I don’t remember who they sold it to because it seemed like it changed a lot. North American, IMC Global, all these companies that just seemed to come and go. When Kerr McGee was here, they were community-minded. They had events, they kept Family Day, an annual walk/run event and different things like that.”

Ledesma says of the plant owners who followed Kerr McGee, “They made money and didn’t do anything for the town. They were just interested in money.”

Heseman says of the current owners, “Searles Valley Minerals (SVM) is just one little part of the parent company, Nirma. People thought that after the earthquakes there was so much damage that it might be the end of the plant. They continued to put money into it and opened it back up. I commend them for that and we were grateful for that because they let people keep jobs. During the pandemic they kept the company open. In that respect they did keep things going. They have continued to provide jobs, but, as for being community-minded, not at all.”

However, the community stepped up for the SVHS Old Guest House Museum that sustained damage during the earthquakes. Sharon Hartley, Treasurer of SVHS tells us, “The exterior of the museum suffered; the earthquake tore a six-inch gap between the porch and the building. It cracked the porch all the way to the ground. On the inside it didn’t do a lot of damage, we had some superficial cracks and some of the doors wouldn’t open. We put in our newsletter asking for donations to help fix the porch and we got quite a bit of donations. We had community people donate, we had Ridgecrest people donate, our members donated, members of the former-Tronans donated, people we didn’t even know donated. We got enough money to fix the porch and the superficial cracks on the inside, the doors. It was totally paid for by donations. It was great. It was unbelievable that we got enough money to do that.”

The Old Guest House Museum was ready to reopen last year, but then the pandemic hit. They closed, but Hartley says, “We kept plugging along.” They were able to pay their bills due to a legacy gift, “In 2015, Fred Herman, passed away and left his estate to us. That money kept us going. We were so happy to open April 1. Maturango Museum docents came over on a tour of the Old Guest House Museum, The History House, Railroad Museum and the Caboose. Some of the docents became members of our historical society.” The Old Guest House Museum is open Monday through Saturday, 10am to 1pm. It was built in 1917 and served as a hotel for the company. The SVHS has transformed it into a history museum about the many facets of Searles Valley: The companies that owned the plant, mining towns, the school, Mojave Street, and an assortment of interesting artifacts and a little feature about Valley Wells.

Valley Wells is well-known to earlier generations of Ridgecrest residents. The salt water pool served as an oasis for many during the long hot summers. There doesn’t seem to be a real clear picture in the minds of residents about the cause of its demise. Ledesma recalls, “The sides were not straight up and down, they were at a slant. The water was pumped in to Valley Wells, chlorinated then pumped to Trona and dechlorinated; so it was a big expense. OSHA comes along and says, ‘This is dangerous, you can’t have a swimming pool like this. You have to straighten up the walls.’ So the plant said, ‘Great. We will just shut it down. It is just a big expense to us.’” Heseman says, “I can’t remember the company that closed Valley Wells. We heard it was because of liability insurance. It was just one of those things that we had that was taken away.”

And now Trona’s fate relies on water. Ledesma says, “We never had any water issues like today where everybody is worried about it. Prices have gone up a little bit, but we don’t know what is going to happen in the future. Where it is going to go, I don’t know. They are talking about shutting off the plant. If they cut the water off, they cut all the jobs off. I don’t think they will cut the water off for the people living here.”

Heseman closely watches the Groundwater Authority meetings and says, “It is very disappointing and very confusing to me. I think it is awful that there is a group of people who suddenly believe that they have the power to close down a business that has been in existence for 100+ years. And consequently to wipe out a community and pretty much make it a ghost town if they get their way.

It is water that has been shared and used for decades and decades and why they think that they have the power to do this to a community that is right next door to them. Without any thought about that community. I heard all the things that have been said; I’ve watched the meetings; we’ve heard excellent arguments against what they are doing but they continue to go on a one-way track.

I know there are questions that people have. Is the water situation really in the state that they believe it is in or are they just looking at one study and taking all their information from one study and not doing other studies or looking at the past studies that have been done? Do they really know what the situation is? Why is it that suddenly their focus is on SVM as being the ‘bad guy’ and the one that is going to take care of the whole situation if SVM is going to stop using the water that they have been using for all these years? They are using that replenishment fee as their excuse for this. So, they stop the pumping, so then the company goes and the community goes away. Is that going to take care of the problem that they think that they have? I don’t think so.

I really want to understand why they are doing this. Is there really a serious problem? I don’t think it has been proven.”

News Review file photo: Andy Ledesma, the Unofficial Vice Mayor of Trona, reminisces as he looks through a 1944 Trona High School annual.

Story First Published: 2021-06-18