Indispensable white gold – the well-established Swiss salt supply system

by Peter Aebersold and Eliane Perret

Searching for new markets, globally operating corporations have “discovered” the basic services (water, electricity, education, etc.) and services provided by the nation states, the service public. While the global players strive to minimise costs (no stock-keeping, reduced maintenance) and to maximise profits on the principle of supply and demand, it is the primary task of the nation states and cooperatives to offer goods and services at affordable, at most cost-covering prices for the entire population aiming to contribute to the common good. The state must therefore also ensure security of supply in the event of disasters and in times of need (compulsory stockpiles, maintenance, high degree of self-sufficiency, etc.). Our prosperity makes us forget that our digitalised, electrified society has become extremely susceptible to disruption. A lack of knowledge about the history of proven institutions of the nation states is making many people susceptible to fictitious arguments in favour for privatisation: State institutions are said to be no longer necessary today, not appropriate or contradicting the liberal economic order. It is not for nothing that the abolition of nation states is at the top of the globalisation agenda. The little-known history of Swiss salt mining is a good example enabling to conceive the relations.

The trax shovels salt in the wharehouse of the Rheinsaline Schweizerhalle. The wharehouse holds around 15,000 tons of salt. Around 200,000 tons of salt per year are extracted from the Schweizerhalle plant using leaching technology. (picture keystone)

The salt of the earth

Salt is essential to life. It is for good reason that our language devotes a large number of idioms to salt. Roughly speaking, the usage of salt can be divided into two main areas: On the one hand, the human and animal nutrition, the household and the winter service for the roads. On the other hand, chemistry, metallurgy, animal skin and intestine utilisation, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, as well as industry and commerce in general.

A look into history

With the rise of the great cultures, the use of salt came up. The Sumerians and Babylonians already used salts to conserve food. The Egyptians also discovered that using salt was essential to live five thousand years ago. Meat, poultry and fish were preserved by salting for weeks and months. Salt was discovered as a valuable commodity. In the Celtic-Germanic area there was a large-scale salt extraction from sea water from the Bronze Age onwards. In the Roman Empire, salt was literally taken at face value. Price stability and regulated supply enabled the Romans to use salt as a means of payment. And so the many state officials and legionnaires were remunerated with salt. The Latin word for salt – sal – is also the origin of the term “salary”, which is still used today. Salt thus became “white gold”. From the 10th century onwards, the conservation of food became increasingly important. Salt was used as a means of preserving meat and cheese for trade, transport and storage, thus avoiding major famines.
Salt was in great demand, but the salt deposits were unevenly distributed. On prehistoric salt roads the salt was transported to regions with no salt resources. It was a valuable commodity, and the transport and trade of table salt made many cities rich.

One teaspoon daily

Table salt (sodium chloride) is the most important mineral substance for humans and animals. The rule of thumb for humans is: 4–6 grammes daily (one level teaspoon). It is a vital inorganic nutrient which the organism cannot produce itself and which must be provided with food. No somatic cell can exist without salt, the heart could not beat, and all nerves would be paralysed. Blood circulation, metabolism, muscle activity, digestion and excretion would be impossible, as sodium regulates the water balance, the transmission of stimuli from muscle and nerve cells and activates many metabolic processes. Among other things, chloride is an important component of gastric juices. It causes the formation of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, which splits proteins from food as a component of gastric juice and deactivates undesirable microorganisms.
Another important finding was that the addition of fluorine to table salt provided an effective protection against tooth decay. Even before this, it was recognised that the addition of iodine could counteract the formation of a goiter associated with iodine deficiency. Unfortunately, this problem has increased again in recent years, since ready meals produced abroad are being distributed. As a rule, the salt used for those does not contain iodine.

An indispensable raw material

The salt as a resource is indispensable in industry, chemistry and pharmacy. Salt cannot be produced synthetically. It is needed in more than 10,000 products. More than 60 % of the salt is used in our industry primarily for the production of soda, acids, alkalis and chlorine. A wide variety of products such as detergents, dyes, glass, baking powder, medicines, PVC plastics, computers, smartphones, soap and aluminium cannot be produced without salt.

Salt for Switzerland

Until 1837, Switzerland could not cover its own needs and had to import practically all its salt from neighbouring countries. Salt trading was a profitable business. The magnificent Stockalperpalast in Brig bears witness to this. In the course of time, however, salt deposits were discovered in various places in Switzerland, which today are used with state-of-the-art technology to cover Switzerland’s salt needs.
Salt has been mined in Bex in the Canton of Vaud for over four centuries. Legend tells that chamois and sheep were particularly fond of certain watering places. A boy from the area, Jean de Bouillet, is said to have noticed this. The reason for this preference was that the water was salty there. In the 16th century, after some non-industrial attempts, the salt was mined using large-scale methods. A tunnel labyrinth more than 50 kilometres long was created. Excavation in the salt mines was not easy, and the salt mines of Bex ran the risk of being closed several times. The well-known Sel des Alpes comes from Bex.
When the German mining expert Carl Christian Friedrich Glenck came to Switzerland in 1836, he also wanted to find and mine the primeval white gold in Swiss soil. Here, too, there were many setbacks. In 8 cantons 17 drillings were made – unsuccessfully. He lost his entire fortune in his efforts. Shortly before bankruptcy, Peter Merian, a professor of geology in Basel, drew his attention to the Basel area. With a final attempt, the breakthrough came on 30 May 1836. In two further drillings, he discovered a 13-foot, 2-inch-thick salt deposit at a depth of 137 metres. It became the first salt mine, and on 1 August of the following year the first 90 centners of Jura salt were delivered in Liestal. By the way, the name Schweizerhalle stands for the tradition of salt mining sites. Halle goes back to the Greek word hals, which simply means salt. The Saline Kaiseraugst (Kaiseraugst salt works) were founded in 1843, the Saline Rheinfelden in 1844 and finally the Saline Riburg in 1848. Thus, within 12 years, four salt works were built within a radius of 20 kilometres at the Rhine, which were in strong competition with each other.

Together into the future

Instead of struggling to survive the competition, the Rheinfelden, Kaiseraugst and Riburg salt works joined forces in 1874 to form the “Schweizerische Rheinsalinen AG” (Swiss Rhine Salt Works Ltd.), in order to be better able to cope with Schweizerhalle. In 1909, however, the Schweizerhalle, Rheinfelden and Riburg salt works were bought and merged by the cantons. Schweizerhalle became the company headquarters. In these salt works the rock salt layers are leached out with injected water. It is called Siedesalz (boiled salt) because it is produced by boiling the Brine. The Canton of Vaud continued to operate its own salt works in Bex, where salt was mined from the layers of salt and rock. In the course of time, the output of salt was considerably increased by various technical achievements. Whereas in 1909 52,000 tonnes of salt were still extracted, today up to 600,000 tonnes per year can be processed.

Learned from mistakes

Some people may still remember the snowy and cold winter of 1999. The year also made history for the Swiss Rhine salt works. For the first time, the de-icing salt warehouses were empty within weeks. Trucks and trains queued up to bring road salt onto the roads. The salt ordered abroad did not arrive on time. The salt-supply of Switzerland could no longer be guaranteed. The consequences were learned from this failure, and in autumn 2004 work began on the construction of an additional salt warehouse in Riburg. Since August 2005, the largest timber dome building in Europe (capacity 80,000 tonnes of salt) is located here. Switzerland can now look forward to harsh winters calmly. And it can supply itself in all respects.
In 2012, a second large salt dome was built by the Swiss salt works as a salt storage facility in Riburg to ensure security of supply. Schweizer Salinen AG employs 200 people at its sites in Riburg, Schweizerhalle and Bex and produces about 600,000 tonnes of salt per year. It ensures the domestic supply of all types of salt through its own production, storage and trade up to the remotest areas of Switzerland. One kilo of Swiss table salt costs less than a litre of milk, lasts for a very long time, has an unlimited shelf life and is enriched with fluorine and iodine.

Salt sovereignty – an important privilege

For our authorities, securing the supply of salt has always been a responsible matter. In the Middle Ages, salt was still a luxury good. Today it is available to everyone. We owe this to the monopoly of salt supply of the cantons, i.e. the sovereign right to extract salt. This right was transferred to the salt works in 1973 by the cantons (with the exception of the Canton of Vaud) in a concordat (agreement between the cantons). The new Canton of Jura joined in 1979 and the Canton of Vaud joined finally in 2014. In the same year, the Swiss Rheinsalinen AG and Saline de Bex SA merged. Since then, the company has operated under the name Schweizer Salinen AG. Schweizer Salinen AG is a commercial company owned solely by the 26 Swiss cantons and, since 1990, also by the Principality of Liechtenstein. The Swiss salt works have uniform and thus solidary prices that are stable. These fixed winter and summer prices provide solidarity with the peripheral regions throughout Switzerland. In other words, whether the salt is delivered to the nearby city of Basel or to distant Puschlav, it always costs the same. Foreign salt suppliers do not apply such solidarity. In the snowy winter of 2012, de-icing salt became scarce for roads in Switzerland and abroad. Thanks to the salt monopoly, however, prices in Switzerland remained stable, while they rose abroad.
Since 2014, the salt monopoly has no longer applied in absolute terms, as trade in food grade salt specialities has been liberalised.

The Swiss people has a right to benefit from the salt supply monopoly

Although the Swiss population can rely on a reliable and well-functioning supply of salt, in 2006 a group of cantonal parliamentarians tried to override the salt monopoly by means of a parliamentary initiative. The government council rightly argued against this and recommended its rejection.
In 2016, a Berne professor of economics found in the statutes of the concordat what he considered to be an unusual regulation which wrongly obliged the cantons to purchase the salt from the Swiss salt works. What had not bothered anyone for a hundred years and had guaranteed Switzerland a smooth, cost-effective and repeatedly optimised supply of salt, was to be made a problem. That was of course water for the mills of those who wanted to hand over everything – including the basic needs of the population – to the free market. Fortunately, the Berne government council kept a cool head and rejected a motion to abolish the salt monopoly in 2016, because of its outweighing advantages: “The government council would see no reason to exchange the proven Swiss salt supply system for an uncertain procedure. The Swiss salt works, for example, ensure that there is always enough de-icing salt available for the roads and pavements. Furthermore, the prices for Swiss salt were ‘fair and constant’, long transport routes could be avoided – and the salt works also made an important contribution to health prevention by adding iodine and fluorine to the table salt.
There is nothing to be added to this!    •

Sources:

This article is based on informations received on a guided tour in Schweizerhalle as well as on excellent fact sheets provided by the Schweizer Salinen.

Kanton Zürich. Parlamentarische Initiative (parliamentary initiative) KR-Nr. 13/2006, Antwort des Regierungsrates. (answer of the cantonal government) 9.1.2007

Kanton Bern. Parlamentarischer Vorstoss (parliamentary initiative). Antwort des Regierungsrates (answer of the cantonal government). 111-2016. Geschäftsnr. 2016 RRGR.569

“Salzmonopol gerät unter Druck” In: Der Bund 19.12.2016 (salt monopoly under pressure)

“Das kantonale Salz-Monopol bleibt.” In: Berner Zeitung 22.11.2016 (The cantonal salt monopoly will be kept in force)

“From brine to crystalline salt.” A film about Swiss salt

Ben. The Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Film und Fernsehen (Working Group for Film and Television) in Zurich produced the impressive documentary film “Schweizer Salz. Von der Sole zum Salzkristall (Swiss salt. From brine to crystalline salt)”. It lasts 23 minutes and is suitable for secondary schools I and II. The film is an instructive journey with fundamental references to the history of the earth and shows the extraction of salt from the sea in the extensive salt gardens in the French Aigues Mortes and in the depths of the earth’s interior in huge salt mines in Borth, Germany.
If you drive past Pratteln on the motorway in the direction of Basel, you cannot miss the Schweizerhalle salt works. Nearby, in the charming Jura landscape, is the hill called Wartenberg. The nearby mountain outside Basel has housed a valuable treasure in the earth for millions of years: deep inside the earth lie thick layers of stone salt. The film team also visited the Swiss Rhine saltworks and documented in detail the process of brine mining. Fresh water is fed into the caverns. The raw brine obtained must then be crystallised again in an evaporation process.

“Schweizer Salz Von der Sole zum Salzkristall (Swiss salt. From brine to cristalline salt” (German/French/Italian) is available from Schweizer Rheinsalinen, 4133 Pratteln, +4161 825 51 51. Brochures, pictures and films can be downloaded from http://www.saline.ch at the Info-Service.