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Amy Choate-Nielsen: In shadow of one of world's largest mines, Magna fights for its future

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 23 2011 12:06 a.m. MDT

A safety message to mine workers is visible from Steve Norcross' property near Kennecott in Magna.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

MAGNA — These days, Steve Norcross glimpses less and less of the sun setting from his front lawn in Magna, but tonight, he looks up and sees the clouds are turning peach and gray, with a slightly brown haze on the horizon.

"Pretty nice view, huh?" he asks with a smile, and a slight edge to his voice. Over his shoulder to the west, there is a berm, a hill and a giant yellow and black sign painted on the side of a Kennecott Utah Copper building that reads: "It's your safety — think about it." The message makes Norcross bristle.

Norcross lives across the street from the southeast corner of Kennecott's south tailings pond, a massive holding area for the pulverized rock that's been stripped of all value during the mining process and crushed to a powder-like substance. The site has caused conflict in the community over its instability in the event of an earthquake and several incidents in the late 1980s when thick clouds of tailings covered the town. Now, as Kennecott looks to expand their operations until 2039, the company has applied for a permit to increase their tailings impoundment, including building on a portion of the south pond — the idea of which makes Norcross angry.

"This is about profit," he says. "That is all this is about. ... The residents of Magna are not a concern. … For me, it's about quality of life. It's about being able to live in the town you grew up in, and live peacefully and not worry about health and not worry about big man-made mountains blocking the sunset. It's about my kids and grandkids."

Norcross has embroiled himself in a battle that wages between the world's need for natural resources, a company that serves that appetite and an environment that will be indelibly impacted by the decisions made today. Stricter government regulations and programs like Superfund have helped companies like Kennecott assume more environmental responsibility for their operations, but when it comes to Kennecott's assurances that its plans will be safe for the environment and his family, Norcross is not convinced, and he is not alone.

Up on the top of Kennecott's tailings pond, on a road that straddles a line between the north pond, which holds a lake of bluish-gray water, and the south pond, which looks like a native prairie with dry, blond wheat and juniper bushes dotting the fields, Paula Doughty, Kennecott tailings and water services manager, is talking about the mine's philosophy toward environmental stewardship.

As the depository of Kennecott's final waste product — tailings — these ponds are a key part of the mine process; they contain the byproduct of all of the rocks Kennecott has ever crushed and all of the copper it has ever harvested and receive roughly 170,000 tons of the material every day. Kennecott spent $500 million in 1996 to build its north tailings pond with the most modern technology available so it would function efficiently and be structurally sound in the event of an earthquake.

"As time has gone on, certainly, environmental regulations have become more stringent," Doughty says. "We try to go even more stringent, more conservative, with the knowledge that things are going to be tighter, so, we say, let's see if we can't go above and beyond what is required … because we'd just as soon take care of it now versus in the future, if that ever happens."

Nevertheless, there are rifts between Kennecott and residents like Norcross who are skeptical of the company's altruistic goodwill and fearful of the impacts of an expansion. The south tailings pond is still unstable, and shouldn't be built on, Norcross says. If the company is willing to risk his safety to expand its mine, what else are they willing to sacrifice?

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