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Amy Choate-Nielsen: The danger down below: Cancer cluster raises questions about legacy of toxic waste in Utah soil

There's no telling when dirty land is really safe

Published: Saturday, Aug. 20 2011 11:33 p.m. MDT

On a chilly May day, the wind is ruthlessly whipping its way up the hillside toward the great alien yellow piles of waste rock deposited from the mine. From a distance, the piles look like they're made of sand, 30 stories tall, but up close, each boulder is about as tall as a child. There are seagulls drifting overhead, and the calls of a songbird break the otherwise quiet of this forbidden territory that's locked behind a chain-link fence.

This is where the story of Kennecott's contamination begins and ends.

In 1863, not long after the Utah War, a band of the U.S. Army camped in the Oquirrh Mountains to keep an eye on the Mormons. Many of the soldiers came from California, where they had been digging for gold, so when they saw the outcroppings of Bingham Canyon, with stripes of shiny silver or glints of blue and green, they knew to start digging.

Soon, the canvas tents of prospectors dotted the canyon, while miners in heavy wool pants and white cotton shirts dug lead, copper and gold as fast as they could swing a pickax. They built hasty shanties next to the mouths of the mines, with outhouses sometimes hanging directly over Bingham Creek, where miners sent their excrement, tailings and anything they wanted to get rid of into the water. During floods, contamination overflowed the creek's banks and spilled onto the surrounding land.

"At that time, activity was not regulated, and people did what they knew how to do to get the metal and dispose of the waste in the most practical and cheapest way possible," says Mike Nelson, chairman of the mining engineering department at the University of Utah.

In 1903, a consortium of miners and businessmen formed the Utah Copper Co., consolidating a majority of the smaller mines, and in 1906, the company started using steam shovels to excavate copper ore out of an open pit. By then, the company's tailings were mixed with water and piped to a pond in Magna, but contaminated water, including excess, highly-acidic waste still made its way into Bingham Creek until about 1965, when Kennecott built a giant reservoir to collect the mine's wastewater. Even then, the reservoir leaked more than 1 million gallons of highly acidic water a day into the groundwater. This lasted for 26 years, until 1991.

Not long after, the government began cracking down on industries across the country, shortly after the formation of the EPA, passing legislation such as the Clean Air Act of 1970.

"When those laws passed, the mining companies and all other industries began to realize, 'We have to change the way we're doing business,'" Nelson says. "There was resistance to it. I remember mining companies in 1970 saying, 'If we have to do that, it will put us out of business.' Fifty years ago, people said none of that (following regulations) is going to make you any money. But now, they observe those principles."

The EPA became concerned about groundwater contamination near the mine and confronted the company in the early 1980s. While Kennecott denied it had anything to do with the contamination, in 1986 the state sued Kennecott, and the EPA began the process of adding Kennecott to its Superfund list — a dreaded designation that could have cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup fees.

In the 1990s, the EPA found high levels of lead and arsenic in the soil in a residential area in West Jordan — on Lisonbee's street and surrounding neighborhoods — and it used federal Superfund dollars to begin cleaning up. Around the same time, Kennecott (which was now owned by the international mining conglomerate Rio Tinto) replaced its old, leaking reservoir that had pumped about 9 billion gallons of highly acidic water into the aquifer.

By 1994, despite efforts from the state government, including Gov. Mike Leavitt and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to keep Kennecott off of the Superfund list, the EPA added the Kennecott north and south zones to a list of proposed Superfund sites. If negotiations did not improve, the designation would be final.

The next year, the EPA, Utah and Kennecott came to an agreement that would allow the EPA to oversee the cleanup, and for Kennecott to pay for its portion without being added to the Superfund list.

The EPA supervised cleanup of a neighborhood in Herriman and six small housing divisions clustered around Lisonbee's street in West Jordan. Non-residential — but contaminated — areas not on Kennecott or Alantic Richfield property were mostly left untouched.

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