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My view: Kennecott expansion affects water

By Ivan Weber

Published: Thursday, May 12 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Kennecott's Bingham Canyon Mine's effect on our water is epic, polluting more water than virtually any other mining company. No surprise here. The world's largest copper mine has created the world's largest mining water contamination problem. Copper mines typically dig into ores rich in sulfide minerals.

Think 'fool's gold' (iron pyrite). Exposed pyrites readily oxidize, forming concentrated sulfuric acid and an intense soup of dissolved metals. This and mercury are the evil genies of mining metals.

As pyrite is broken down, fool's gold produces "fool's water," dubbed "acid mine drainage" or "acid rock drainage" depending on your sensitivity about blaming miners for causing it to occur. Once begun, there isn't much that can be done to stop it.

The world's worst ground water contamination plume east of Copperton formed while the unlined Large Bingham Reservoir leaked between 1 million and 7 million gallons per day for about 10,000 days, (27 years) between 1964 and 1990. Another huge sulfate plume formed beneath what's now Daybreak during the 1930s till the early 1990s.

Acid mine drainage will continue forever, for all practical purposes. The trick for preventing damage to environment, community and water resources is to contain acid waters perpetually and to recover and sell the valuable metals from them. As is visible in a Google Earth image of the current reservoir complex near Copperton, there's a huge quantity of highly acidic/metals-rich, turquoise-blue water contained by some sheets of moderately thin plastic. Even the best lining system can't last forever. Is this one sufficient for perpetuity?

Kennecott's water history and other events of the 1990s are dizzying to follow: superfund nomination, smelter modernization, major soils cleanups, land reclamation experiments, extensive changes to the capture and conveyance of leach water and stormwater, identification of selenium ground water contamination at Kennecott's north zone, closure of Barney's and Melco gold mines, Kennecott urban land development beginnings and an ongoing series of water discharge permits.

The "1986-2004 Natural Resource Damage Claim" was filed by the state against Kennecott for ground water contamination and damage to the Southwest Jordan Valley aquifer. The "Joint Settlement" agreement provided cover for Kennecott and the state to redirect all water contamination disposal into the Great Salt Lake.

Whereas soil cleanups resemble mining activities closely enough that Kennecott does them well, they are not at all good with air and water — like the mining industry worldwide. If we are to accept the historical record, state regulators fail this test of responsible competence toward air and water, as well.

Kennecott has been pumping vigorously for years to decrease the volume of the acid/metals plume, jettisoning highly toxic water both into their pass-through tailings impoundment and directly into the Great Salt Lake. Kennecott's water treatment plant, near Copperton, sends contamination to tailings and to the Great Salt Lake.

The Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District's treatment concentrates will soon also be discharged into the Great Salt Lake via a 21 mile pipeline. Kennecott has pumped-and-dumped the huge North Kennecott selenium plume into the Great Salt Lake without proof that no harm will be done, and without knowing whether selenium will damage the globally significant populations of migratory birds that make this inland sea the wonder of western America.

Selenium is known to be particularly deleterious to birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish, damaging reproduction and often causing grotesque embryonic malformations. Kennecott has directed all these contamination flows to the Great Salt Lake, as their perverse grand experiment, putting life in the Lake ecosystem at risk.

Acid leach water will be formed and released from the mine for centuries, even without any more mining. Can the "Cornerstone" expansion avoid further increase of the rate, quantity and duration of acid water formation? Is there some magical way to make mining harmless to water?

If not, we will be fools to allow ourselves to be inundated in Kennecott's tsunami of "fool's water," further poisoning the Lake and increasingly scarce ground water.

Ivan Weber is an independent sustainability consultant, and former Kennecott contract environmental planner.

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