Wherever we look in the developed West, we see evidence of misuse: eroding streams, stripped forests, species such as the grizzly hanging on by their claws.
believe it is not enough to simply stop the damage. We must also
put the West back together. But many in the West are in a state of
denial, especially those who blasted the landscape to produce the
only goods the region's economy for so long knew how to value:
Ironically, the owner of the
biggest mining pit in the world, the Kennecott copper company, is
trying to become an exception. Kennecott wants to clean up the huge
pit's pollution without becoming a Superfund site. What the public
and the Environmental Protection Agency must determine is whether
Kennecott can be trusted to do the job.
Christensen, HCN's Great Basin regional editor, begins his report
on page 8.
Salt Lake City,
Utah - Preston Chiaro has a huge mess on his hands. The vice
president of health, safety and environmental quality for Kennecott
Corp., Chiaro is in charge of cleaning up more than 130 years of
contamination around the Bingham Canyon open-pit copper mine near
Salt Lake City.
Chiaro wants a chance to show
that the owner of "the world's richest hole" can clean up its act.
"We talk about how modern mining is environmental," he says.
"Here's the opportunity to prove it."
Environmental Protection Agency wants to put the mine on the
Superfund national priorities list of the most hazardous polluted
sites in the United States. The listing would allow the federal
agency to take over the cleanup and even close the mine.
Chiaro tells the story of Bingham Canyon as he
maneuvers through morning traffic on the way to the mine. From
Kennecott's high-rise offices downtown, across from the white
spires of the Mormon temple, we drive southwest 15 miles across the
Salt Lake Valley toward the Oquirrh Mountains.
We come to Bingham Canyon, where over the years
miners have hauled out more wealth than was taken during the
California gold rush, the Comstock and the Klondike combined. The
mine has yielded more copper than any mine in history: more than 14
million tons so far. It continues to produce commodities on a
gargantuan scale: half a billion pounds of copper a year, along
with 34 million pounds of molybdenum, 2 million ounces of silver
and 253,000 ounces of gold.
The pit, now
two-and-a-half miles across and a half-mile deep, and the "Yosemite
dumps," 1,000-foot-tall man-made mesas of waste rock visible from
Salt Lake City, are monuments in progress to the awesome consumer
demands that can destroy a landscape. For mining has created a
legacy of environmental problems around Bingham Canyon that will
endure long after the last pound of copper is taken from the pit.
Spring runoff spread tailings from historic lead
mills over the banks of Bingham Creek, where homes would later be
built. Piles of waste rock choked streams as the mountain at the
head of Bingham Canyon was turned inside out over the last century.
And an aquifer under the Jordan River valley and the sprawling
suburbs of Salt Lake City was steadily poisoned by acid mine
Smoke from Kennecott's copper smelter
14 miles away on the shore of the Great Salt Lake turned the
northern end of the Oquirrh Mountains into a "moonscape," Chiaro
says, and polluted Salt Lake City's air for many years. The wind
blew hazardous dust from a mammoth 5,700 acre tailings pile over
In recent years, much of the damage
has been controlled. Air quality has improved since Kennecott
installed better scrubbers on the smelter smokestack. The company
has kept the tailings pile wet so dust no longer blows away on the
wind. Trucks have hauled hundreds of loads of contaminated soil
Kennecott is well into more
than a dozen expensive moving and construction projects to clean up
and contain its hazardous wastes, and it is working on plans to
deal with major long-term problems, such as the groundwater
contamination. Chiaro says it is the "largest voluntary cleanup"
ever undertaken by a mining company.
Kennecott profited handsomely from many of the mining practices
that led to these problems - some caused by its predecessors - the
company is not undertaking this cleanup simply to atone for the
past. Immense wealth remains buried in Bingham Canyon.
Each year, Kennecott makes an estimated $400 to
$600 million in profits. It directly employs 2,400 people.
Unlike a lumber company that can cut and run,
the mining company must stay in place to get valuable minerals
still in the ground. Kennecott is sinking $2 billion into
modernizing its operation by replacing its entire copper-making
factory. Many of the improvements, such as a new smelter now under
construction, mean the mine will run cleaner than required by
current regulations. But keeping apace of environmental standards
and cleaning up mistakes of the past are just the first steps.
Restoring the landscape to a reasonably clean and stable ecological
condition is the ultimate goal, Chiaro says.
it is by no means clear Kennecott can succeed. The EPA certainly
Bingham Canyon is
a stage upon which every act of mining in the West has been played
out. This hard-rock history began about 35 million years ago,
around the same time that mammals began taking over North America,
when a giant magma dome pushed up through the fractured sedimentary
rocks of the Oquirrh Mountains forming a three-mile wide porphyry
rich in copper surrounded by "halos' of lead, silver and
Technically, geologists say, this is a
low-grade deposit because tiny grains of valuable minerals are
scattered throughout the "host rock." An average ton of ore
contains 13 pounds of copper and a minute amount of other metals.
In the world of mining, however, that is enough to make Bingham
Canyon a fantastically rich ore body.
began here in 1863, when soldiers stationed in Salt Lake City
during the Civil War panned for silver and gold in Bingham Creek.
Within a decade, mining camps, silver and lead mills, smelters and
a railroad spur lined the narrow canyon.
turn of the century, a company called Utah Copper controlled most
of Bingham Canyon. With capital from the Rockefeller and Guggenheim
empires, and steam shovels and engineering know-how from the recent
construction of the Panama Canal, Utah Copper began digging the
world's first open-pit mine.
In the 1930s,
Kennecott acquired a majority interest in the mine on its way to
becoming the world's largest copper producer with mines in Arizona,
New Mexico and Nevada. The copper titan steadily consolidated its
hold on Bingham Canyon by buying everything in its way. Eventually,
the pit swallowed most of the canyon and the ramshackle mining town
that gave the mine its name.
A century after
miners came to Bingham Canyon, the pit had become one of two human
creations visible to the first astronauts, along with the Great
Wall of China.
In booming post-World War II
America, a company that owned a bottomless supply of a basic
commodity could hardly go wrong. Copper was an essential element in
every new all-electric home and appliance. Kennecott and its
employees rode a rising tide of consumer affluence. For decades,
management and unions regularly boosted wages and benefits while
perilously ignoring environmental damage and changes in the
The mining slump of the early 1980s hit
Kennecott hard. Plummeting copper prices almost put it under. After
losing $160 million in 1984, and another $40 million in the first
quarter of 1985, the mine shut down.
CEO named Frank Joklik is credited with retooling the rusting
regional copper giant into an efficient cog in the global
commodities market. Joklik saw that the only way to survive in an
era of cut-rate commodity prices was to slash production costs.
Kennecott laid off three out of every four workers and forced the
survivors to accept wage and benefit cuts and give up
cost-of-living adjustments. The mine reopened a year
Joklik then convinced a series of
corporations that took over Kennecott during the 1980s - Standard
Oil, British Petroleum, and current owner RTZ Corp., the biggest
mining conglomerate in the world - to invest in an entirely new
automated copper production line. As copper prices rose in the late
1980s, Bingham Canyon became the lowest cost, most profitable
copper producer in North America.
In many ways,
Kennecott emerged a different company. It even lost its name for a
while during the merger mania of the "80s. RTZ - the British
company's name is pronounced "R-T-Zed" even by American workers -
gave the company back its name and its pride with an infusion of
capital and a young cadre of managers with a can-do spirit.
Today, even with the threat of Superfund hanging
over their heads, Kennecott executives no longer resort to the
industry cliché that the mine might be forced to close if
environmental regulations get too tough.
wouldn't be spending $2 billion if we intended to shut down," says
Chiaro. "We need a 30-year mine life to pay off those investments.
We fully intend to keep operating. That's what pays for cleanup."
Chiaro, 40, has some
experience with Superfund messes. He has worked on a "couple dozen"
listings as a consultant and on the ground as a remedial
investigator and manager at the Army's Rocky Mountain Arsenal and
the Energy Department's Rocky Flats plutonium plant near Denver. He
was hired to keep Kennecott off the Superfund list. It is his
toughest assignment yet.
"I was a little uneasy
about coming to work for a mining company because they don't have a
good environmental record," he says. "But I was convinced up to the
highest levels that Kennecott is serious about restoring the
environment around Bingham Canyon. RTZ doesn't want an
environmental smudge on its crown jewel."
is working hard to burnish Kennecott's tarnished image and by his
own account sparing no reasonable expense. He says RTZ executives
were surprised by his initial estimate of the cost of cleaning up
around Bingham Canyon, which he pegged at close to $200 million.
"But after we peeled them off the ceiling, they bit the bullet."
Kennecott has spent $85 million over the last
two years and plans to spend another $80 million this year, he
says. The money has paid for a massive landscaping and construction
project keeping up to 400 workers and dozens of earth-moving
machines busy trying to clean up what miners have torn apart.
"It's a hell of a lot easier to deal with
problems up front," says Chiaro, watching a giant shovel scrape
dirt from a valley filled with waste rock from the historic Lark
"Here we're dealing with a legacy
that is 130 years old. In the frontier days, people did what they
wanted," Chiaro says. "Everything from lead tailings to household
garbage was dumped in the canyon. Waste rock is scattered all
around. They basically dumped it on the ground and walked away. But
we own the land now, so it's our responsibility."
The worst problems are not all historic. Some
are still part of the normal operations of the
When water drains through the waste-rock
dumps it becomes acidic and leaches mineral particles out of the
"We take advantage of that," says
Chiaro. This acidic water is collected in canals at the bottom of
the piles and processed to remove valuable metals. Kennecott gets
20 tons of copper per day from this leach water, which is then
sprayed on the dumps again.
"But our capture
systems for leach water have not been perfect," Chiaro says. "We're
spending a lot of money to correct that."
is an understatement. Kennecott knew in the late 1960s that a
reservoir for holding leach water at the mouth of Bingham Canyon
was leaking millions of gallons a day. Last year, under orders from
the Environmental Protection Agency, the reservoir was finally
dredged and lined with a double layer of plastic containing an
electronic leak detection grid. Workers are now building a massive
system of concrete dikes and pipes to ring the mine and capture the
acidic water that leaches from the waste-rock dumps.
The mine is building a fortress to contain its
own mess. Millions of tons of waste rock and "hot spots' of
tailings scattered for many miles around the mine have been moved
behind these concrete walls. Disturbed areas have been covered with
clean topsoil and replanted. From now on, Chiaro says, more land
will be reclaimed each year around Bingham Canyon than is torn
But the biggest problem has yet to be
tackled: a moving plume of polluted groundwater that threatens the
drinking water for much of the Salt Lake City area. "Plume" refers
to the portion of water that is contaminated and assumes a
plume-like shape as it spreads. Concentrated near the mouth of
Bingham Canyon, the plume has a two-square-mile core of acidic
water laced with metals similar to the mine's leach water.
Within a mile or so, the acid is naturally
neutralized by the limestone that the aquifer flows through. As the
water becomes less acidic, the metals solidify and fall out of
solution. But salty byproducts called sulfates remain dissolved in
Sulfates, the most pervasive pollutant
from mining in the West, can cause diarrhea, especially in infants,
although the human body usually can adjust to fairly high levels.
Congress debated setting a maximum permissable level for sulfates
in the Clean Water Act, but out of deference to the mining industry
and communities that have naturally high sulfate levels in their
groundwater because of the underlying rocks, failed to set one. The
federal drinking water standard for sulfates is essentially a
recommendation about the point at which consumers will say the
water tastes bad.
This aesthetic standard is
exceeded throughout the roughly 50-square-mile plume, under the
homes of 70,000 people in the fastest growing suburbs in Utah. A
state maximum contaminant level for sulfates, as well as federal
and state primary standards for metals such as lead, cadmium and
copper, are also exceeded in many wells in the area, making them
unsafe for drinking water.
The EPA says the cost
of coping with this contaminated groundwater could run as high as
$2.2 billion. That's to pump and treat all the polluted water so
that it meets drinking water standards, then put it back
underground to restore the aquifer. Kennecott favors a $102 million
plan to contain the core area of contamination with pumps and to
build a treatment plant to deliver clean water to residents in the
contaminated area. The plan says the carbonate rocks underground
will clear sulfates from the water naturally over hundreds of
Between those two options lies a
wide-ranging debate about how much industry should be forced to pay
for resources it has damaged. It boils down to whether companies
should pay to repair damaged resources over the short term or
restore them for the long run. It also involves dilemmas of
relativity, such as how clean is clean? And it requires determining
blame, assigning responsibility, and making prudent decisions about
spending millions of dollars on goals that may prove unreachable.
"Valuation of natural resources is like voodoo,
it is not an exact science," says Ann Maest, a consultant who has
worked on the natural-resource damage assessment around the
Anaconda copper mine Superfund site in Butte,
"With groundwater in Montana, what it would
take to clean it up is so much more expensive than what the water
is worth today. So they're looking for alternative sources of
Groundwater is probably more
valuable in populated arid areas such as Salt Lake City, Maest
says, and will only get more valuable. But the final decision
usually comes in court, she adds, as cleanup and restoration
inevitably get mired in litigation.
It happened in Kennecott's
case. The roots of this legal tangle go back to 1986. After being
shut down for more than a year, the mine was up and running again
for a month when Kenneth Alkema, then director of the Utah Division
of Environmental Quality, filed notice of a claim against Kennecott
for damaging the state's natural resources.
Superfund law - formally known as the Comprehensive Environmental
Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or CERCLA - requires
each governor to designate a trustee of the state's natural
resources. Alkema was Utah's trustee.
offered to negotiate. And the two sides agreed to conduct a
five-year study of the groundwater contamination. In August 1991, a
small advertisement appeared among the fine-print legal notices in
Salt Lake City newspapers announcing that the state proposed "to
enter into a consent decree with Kennecott Corporation in
settlement of a natural-resource damage claim." No other details
Details soon emerged. The state
would get $12 million, the estimated market value of the damaged
groundwater. The money would pay to replace the water from other
sources. It might even be used to help pay the state's share of the
Central Utah Project. In return, the state would relinquish all
further claims against Kennecott.
said nothing about stopping the sources of contamination, let alone
cleaning the groundwater. Alkema said the EPA would have to pursue
cleanup through Superfund.
The deal set off
"alarm signals' at the Salt Lake County Water Conservancy District,
says general manager David Ovard. The district is the major
wholesale water purveyor in the southern suburbs of Salt Lake City
near the mine. There are other water companies, towns and agencies
affected by the contamination, but the district was the only local
agency to "summon the courage" to oppose the deal, Ovard says.
Others feared Kennecott's clout and "getting on the wrong side of
The water district stood up to
Kennecott because it has a substantial interest in the outcome of
the damage claim. Three million acre-feet of water under its
service area have been contaminated, he says, 10 times more water
than the $300 million Jordanelle Dam will hold. The district may
need that water. It also stands to gain if it is cut in on a
Ovard says the district had
to intervene because the state was not acting as a responsible
trustee of its resources. "The state said if you give us $12
million we'll be out of it," says Ovard. "That's a real cop-out for
the trustee. I don't think they cared about cleanup until we
intervened. Kennecott had managed everything quite nicely up to
that point. I don't think they took us seriously. They intended to
roll right over us."
The Utah Clean Water
Coalition - a group of environmentalists and community activists -
also entered the fray at the urging of the Mineral Policy Center, a
national organization advocating mining reform. Kenley Brunsdale,
an attorney for the groups, argued that the state's settlement with
Kennecott violated a 1989 Appeals Court decision. That decision had
struck down Interior Department regulations that authorized a
market-value assessment of natural resource damages. The court
ruled that Congress intended the Superfund law to promote
restoration of damaged resources - a much more expensive
In October 1992, U.S. District
Judge Thomas Greene rejected the proposed settlement between
Kennecott and the state for failing to "protect and restore" the
damaged resources. The state was putting "the cart before the
horse" by settling the claim before the source of contamination was
cleaned up, the judge wrote, and Kennecott had failed to prove that
the aquifer could not be fully
Moreover, the agreement didn't prevent
further contamination, Judge Greene ruled, and it only covered the
market value of the contaminated water and not other "option and
existence" values. Those values included potential use of the
aquifer to store water from the Central Utah Project and the
intangible value of groundwater in the desert - the benefits people
get just from knowing it is there.
the state appealed to the 10th Circuit Court in Denver to overrule
Greene and uphold the settlement. The appeals court dismissed the
case Jan. 31, on procedural grounds.
and the state have appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. At the same
time, they have begun negotiations on a new settlement that would
address Greene's concerns. This time the Salt Lake County Water
Conservancy District is at the
Kennecott is also
trying to cut a deal with the EPA to stay off the Superfund list.
William K. Reilly, EPA administrator in the Bush administration,
was eager to work out an agreement with Kennecott that could serve
as a "model" for avoiding the legal snarls of the Superfund
program. But negotiations stalled in the transition to a new
administration, which has proved more cautious about making a deal
with the mining company.
The EPA would like to
settle with Kennecott, officials now say, but on strict terms. The
EPA wants at least as much authority to deal with "the big problem'
- groundwater contamination - under an "enforceable consent decree"
as it would have under Superfund. That means the EPA would be able
to use federal money for cleanup and then sue those responsible for
"Superfund gives EPA that hammer
of enforcement authority to assure cleanup takes place to
appropriate standards," says Mike Holmes, EPA community relations
coordinator for the Kennecott cleanup.
faces a dilemma, however. It must decide whether to go along with
Kennecott's cleanup or to spend much more money for a full-scale
restoration effort that even its own experts agree may not be worth
it. EPA experts acknowledge that the aquifer probably never can be
completely restored. Because sulfates are not classified as a
hazardous substance, the EPA can't compel Kennecott to clean up the
entire sulfate plume. It can only force Kennecott to clean up the
core of acidic water laced with metals.
could pay to clean up the sulfates if it puts the site under
Superfund. But the best method for removing sulfates from water, a
process called reverse osmosis, is costly. The cure can also be
almost as bad as the disease: The hazardous brine and sludge left
over must be dumped somewhere else.
Kennecott's work on containing the sources of contamination
progressing rapidly, Chiaro says there is time to carefully
consider the costs and risks of final remedies for groundwater.
"It's not a dire emergency," he says. "We can
think rather than rush in." Kennecott is experimenting with running
contaminated water through artificial wetlands stocked with
bacteria that thrive on metals and sulfates.
EPA is skeptical about "constructed wetlands' and unsure whether to
trust Kennecott's long-term commitment.
to look closely at this so-called voluntary cleanup," says Bob
Duprey, EPA regional director of hazardous waste management.
Kennecott has known about some of the contamination since the
1950s, he says. "It wasn't until we started the process of listing
that the cleanup work was started."
response is that it has already spent more money on cleanup than
has ever been spent on a mining Superfund site.
"Why hit someone over the head with the
Superfund hammer when they're already doing the work?" Chiaro asks.
"We're assuming liability, one of the main sticking points in
Superfund. We want to spend money on cleanup, not attorney fees. We
think that's a smarter approach. EPA resources could be better used
to track down those who won't take responsibility. My experience
with Superfund - it's slow, cumbersome, nothing happens," Chiaro
Those sentiments are echoed in the
surrounding community, where many people seem willing to give
Kennecott a chance to clean up its mess. Although company towns
near the mine have become suburbs of Salt Lake City, never a
company town, Kennecott has always been a Utah powerhouse and it
remains so. The entire Utah congressional delegation, the governor
and state legislature, and community and county governments have
all come out against the Superfund listing.
"Superfund is appropriate if you have a company
that's not stepping to the plate," says Tony Murphy, city manager
for South Jordan, the town that sits directly over the groundwater
contamination plume. "But if it's contributing to the economy and
willing to accept responsibility, why force Superfund on it and
spend 35 percent on lawyers fees?"
Kennecott and the town of 14,000 people have worked well together
on the cleanup of Bingham Creek and getting residents with
contaminated wells hooked up to a municipal supply. "We've chosen a
different route - to form a partnership," says
Advocates for the problem-fraught
Superfund program are hard to find. Even some of Kennecott's former
critics, who oppose the natural resource damage settlement with the
state, support the company's efforts to stay off the Superfund
"We're backing Kennecott in avoiding that
stigma," says Jim Brusatto, a community activist with the Magna
area community council. "They've approached this with a cooperative
rather than a confrontational attitude. It wasn't always like this.
Forty years ago they lied and said there was not a problem."
The most surprising conversion has been that of
Ivan Weber, a Sierra Club activist who fought Kennecott on air
quality for many years and then led the opposition to the damage
settlement. Weber now works for a Kennecott contractor on the
cleanup. When all the work is done, Weber hopes that the mine will
be left in a "stable, environmentally acceptable state" and that
wetlands will provide a long-term biological buffer for acid
"It's probably repugnant to a
born-again environmentalist that nature can be taken apart and put
together again," Weber says. "But we've inherited these mines that
as a people we have to do something about. It's going to be
expensive and difficult. I'm not trying to be an apologist. But the
only hope for cleaning up this piece of earth is for Kennecott to
clean it up."
Scott Endicott, who has taken up
the Sierra Club's vigilance of Kennecott, remains skeptical. "This
place is in for dealing with this for the rest of time," he says.
"As long as people are still living in this valley, we will have to
deal with that mine and the pollution it is causing. It's going to
be expensive. But I don't think they have a choice. If they have to
put all their profits into it, they ought to."
After all the technical,
financial and legal details have been argued out, the debate over
whether the EPA needs a Superfund listing to make Kennecott come
clean finally comes down to a question of trust.
Kennecott has made great efforts to instill
trust in the local community. It still has to prove itself to the
EPA and probably in court.
EPA officials and
Kennecott executives say they have been on the brink of an
agreement again and again, only to have their lawyers keep them
from signing. There are issues of substance involved, including the
amount of financial assurance that Kennecott will provide for
cleanup, and whether there will be any independent review of EPA
But both sides agree that the
differences between a voluntary cleanup and a Superfund listing
come down to legal arguments. In this respect, Bingham Canyon
threatens to become typical of Superfund's problems rather than a
model for solutions.
Chiaro says Kennecott's
position has hardened since it has already been "smeared" by the
listing proposal. He still hopes to reach an agreement with the
EPA, but seems resigned to Superfund.
will not shut us down. It will make cleanup slower and cost more.
But we'll get through it," he says. "This isn't a battle. We have
the same goal."
This spring another season of
cleanup construction and earth-moving is under way. Workers are
capping old Kennecott tailings ponds in South Jordan, the last
remaining source of groundwater contamination the company has to
The natural resource damage claim
The EPA and Kennecott say
they will try again to reach agreement in late May. If they can't,
Kennecott will end up on the Superfund list. A final decision could
come from the EPA as early as this summer. n
Christensen is Great Basin regional editor in Carson City, Nevada.
This article was paid for by the High Country News Research Fund
and by contributors to HCN's Great Basin
For more information or to make comments
on the EPA's proposal to put Kennecott on the Superfund national
priorities list, contact Mike Holmes, EPA Region 8 community
relations coordinator, 999 18th St., Ste. 500, Denver, CO 80202
(303/294-1141 or 800/227-8917 ext. 1141). The complete 4,250 page
proposal can be read at the West Jordan City Hall and Magna City
Library. Kennecott Corp. headquarters is at 10 East South Temple,
P.O Box 11248, Salt Lake City, UT 84147