A POTASH firm will start talks to expand the UK’s deepest mine by 40 years in the coming days, The Northern Echo can reveal.

ICL UK wants to extend its Boulby site, in east Cleveland, until 2060.

Bosses say the move will help overcome hundreds of shock job losses by securing the mine’s long-term future and giving it a platform to dominate the global fertiliser market.

About 220 ICL staff and 140 contractors are due to leave by April, with another 350 people expected to be released in 2018 after tests revealed significantly lower potash reserves.

However, officials say the 40-year move, first mooted in 2013, proves they are committed to the site.

They say it will allow the business, known locally as Cleveland Potash, to develop its multi-million pound venture on the fertiliser polyhalite, which it says significantly enhances crop growth.

Marketed as polysulphate, it will supersede ICL’s traditional potash business and the company is already building a factory to crush and process the mineral.

The firm previously said it hopes to be mining about three million tonnes of polyhalite every year after 2020, which will be complemented by its ongoing annual extraction of around half a million tonnes of road salt.

Phil Bedford, head of engineering, said the decision to extend its existing licence, which is due to expire in 2023, should give the company’s Israel-based hierarchy real assurance to invest in the site.

He said: “This mine is not closing; we are creating a future.

“ICL wants us to stay in the area for a long time.

“In the new year, we will speak to the National Park about building our planning application.

“We are doing all we can to give us longevity and safeguard jobs for years to come.

“That will build a business that can go on from 2018 mining polyhalite and salt.”

Mr Bedford also responded to claims scores of contractors will be released on Christmas Eve, saying the company has retained a number of workers for weeks longer that it could have done.

He said the decision, which put a strain on budgets identified for cuts, allowed some men to continue earning while they found alternative employment.

About 20 contractors are expected to leave tomorrow, but Mr Bedford said more than 100 will stay until April, with a significant number being kept on to continue maintenance work and project support, and build its £38m polyhalite plant.

He said: “We could have let them go in November when we announced the changes, and said ‘we don’t need you anymore’, but we didn’t.

“We have given as much as we can to them.

“We are not heartless and we feel these decisions.

“We care and we would love to see some of these people back if there is an opportunity.

“It has been extremely difficult for us because those who will lose their jobs have families, children and mortgages.

“A lot of our contractors have been here for years; you meet them down at Asda and stop and talk to them.

“But we are having to stick together to create a business that will bring prosperity.

“We are trying to set up a business for the next ten, 20, 30 and 40 years.

“We want to see more people going through to landmarks, such as 25 years’ service, including people who have not even started with us yet.

“The contractors will be part of that; this will not be a contractorless site.”

Mr Bedford added ICL’s changes will have no impact on apprentices’ initial development, who are at various training levels.

The company has more than 30 youngsters on its site, including a small number from a contractor.

He said: “We are doing as much as we can to help them complete their apprenticeships.

“We want to make sure they are turned out and ready to go.

“It is at a considerable cost, but it says a lot about the company that even during difficult times it is still looking to ensure young people and contractors are treated with the respect and compassion they deserve.”

Mr Bedford said talks with unions over the 220 affected ICL workers have been positive.

He said a 45-day consultation process is continuing and revealed there has been interest from workers about voluntary redundancy.

Earlier this year, The Northern Echo exclusively revealed ICL was assessing £50m plans to build a granulation plant to ramp up its polyhalite work.

The factory, which officials have revised down to £40m, is now the subject of a feasibility study.

The firm says it would turn fine polyhalite into granules, reduce waste and provide farmers with an easier-to-use mineral.