While Kennecott grapples with a real mess of contamination on the ground and in the water around Bingham Canyon, it also finds itself entangled in a long-running debate about regulating mine wastes.
The mining industry has
successfully lobbied to keep most mine wastes from being regulated
as hazardous under the tough "cradle to grave" rules of RCRA, the
Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, passed in 1976.
Environmental Protection Agency mine waste
experts say the threat of hazardous contamination from mines is
real. But its efforts to write regulations for mine wastes have
So the agency is moving to put
hazardous mining sites under the intense regulatory "hammer" of
Superfund. EPA experts say that many mines operating today -
particularly copper and gold mines in the West - are destined for
The Superfund law - also known by its
acronym CERCLA for the Comprehensive Environmental Response,
Compensation and Liability Act - was passed in 1980 in the
aftermath of the disaster at Love Canal. The Niagara Falls, N.Y.,
suburb was built on top of a former toxic dump that leaked into
homes. Superfund's principal purpose is to force the clean-up of
At mines the source of trouble
is not leaking drums of chemicals but piles of waste rock, tailings
and slag created in the normal course of mining, milling and
refining metals. The danger comes when metals, acids and other
hazardous byproducts from these wastes find their way into the
soil, air and water.
The problems at Bingham
Canyon are "typical" of open-pit mines of the West, says Mike
Holmes, an EPA community relations coordinator in the Denver Region
8 office. Of the approximately 50 mining sites on the Superfund
list, a majority are in the West. Mining continues at a dozen of
the Superfund sites. In addition, the practices that created the
hazards are still used at many mines.
directs the EPA to find the companies responsible for hazardous
materials that threaten people and force them to pay for cleanups
directed by the agency.
Superfund money, which
comes from a tax on businesses that earn more than $1 million a
year, can be used for emergency removals and to restore the site if
the responsible parties cannot be found.
only sounds straightforward. The Superfund program itself is a
shambles, according to industry, environmental groups, community
activists, Congress and the Clinton administration. Even the EPA
agrees. Too much money has been spent on lawsuits - up to one-third
of the $13 billion spent on Superfund since 1980. There are 1,275
sites on the national priorities list and the list is growing by
about 100 each year. But only 217 cleanup jobs have been
CERCLA is up for congressional
reauthorization this year with uncertain prospects for passage.
Reforms proposed by EPA administrator Carol Browner include
increased community involvement in Superfund planning, more
voluntary cleanups, flexible standards for how clean a site must be
depending on how the property will be used in the future, and
arbitration instead of lawsuits to settle disputes.
Preston Chiaro, Kennecott's environmental vice
president, says the EPA's "words are right" when it comes to
reforming Superfund. But the EPA is missing a perfect opportunity
to change the way CERCLA works if it puts Kennecott on the
Superfund list, he says. Chiaro also predicts that if Kennecott is
listed, everyone will have to cope with a much bigger