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

Published: Monday, Aug. 22 2011 11:00 p.m. MDT

If a major earthquake were to hit Magna today, the south tailings pond, which dates back to 1906, could break free of its boundaries and spill across state Route 201. Norcross worries his family will be in danger if it makes the pond even bigger on an unstable base. He also worries the company might one day lapse in maintenance of the ponds as it did in the 1980s, and the oppressive dust storms might return.

Kennecott says the tailings themselves aren't harmful, though they contain trace amounts of copper, lead and arsenic. Norcross wonders how harmless they really are.

If Kennecott is granted a permit to expand its tailings pond, the perimeter will expand into 565 acres of wetlands along the Great Salt Lake, and it will grow three stories taller in some places. In phase two of the project, Kennecott would resume using a majority of the south tailings pond, which is still seismically unstable.

The south tailings pond also seeps water into a shallow aquifer, as permitted by Utah's Department of Water Quality. The pond leaks at a rate of about 620 gallons per minute, according to the UDWQ, which found high levels of arsenic, selenium and cadmium in the aquifer. The north tailings impoundment sits on a layer of clay, which acts as a natural liner. The UDWQ monitors ground water through 28 wells situated around the entire complex.

Kennecott's central plans to expand and keep mining until 2039 depend on making the tailings pond bigger.

Extending the mine's life will help serve the world's need for copper, says Kyle Bennett, Rio Tinto spokesman.

"The resources we're providing are helping to fuel a more green world, in many respects," Bennett says. "Economic growth — industrial growth — is driven by the resources we are obtaining through our activities."

An environmental impact with such a massive undertaking is inevitable, says Kelly Payne, environment manager at Kennecott, but the company is looking at ways to manage their impact and turn it around to be a positive thing, in the end. He admits the mining industry has a checkered history of dumping its waste without a backward glance, but things have changed, he says.

"We recognize we have to do things differently than we did, and we are doing things differently," Payne says. "I see us making decisions, doing projects differently, because we've thought through what impact it could have."

Living so close to Kennecott has not always been easy for Norcross' family. His grandfather built the house in 1938, and in his day, smelter smoke from the nearby stacks killed the vegetation. In his mother's day — she lived in the house until 2007 — particles blowing from the tailings pond were sometimes so thick she couldn't see far enough to walk, and the inside of the house was constantly covered in grey-brown tailings dust. In his day, Norcross discovered the south corner of the tailings pond was unstable.

But the mine's impact reaches beyond Norcross' home on the east side of Magna. On the west side of town, in the shadow of Kennecott's power plant, Diane Haggart worries about the air she breathes and the water she refuses to drink. She sees pieces of ash on the ground when the stacks are running, and once, last summer, she could hardly breathe from the smoke inside her home. Before the mine is allowed to expand, there should be a health study done first, to determine how residents in the area are being impacted, she says.

"All I ask is a right to live and breathe, and don't pollute and kill me," Haggart says. "I don't think that should be a lot to ask for. But, oh — don't drink that water in Magna. You'll be sorry. We've got bottled water and it's costing us a fortune."

Cherise Udell, founder of Utah Moms for Clean Air, argues in one way or another, the mine still impacts all of Salt Lake valley.

"In the Rio Tinto, Kennecott community, there is a lot of emphasis on sustainability and trying to be environmentally proactive," Udell says. "There are great people working for the company trying to make a difference, but ultimately, most of that is done just as pr. And it's not done to really address the serious problems of the collateral damage of mining."

One of Udell's main concerns is Kennecott's natural gas and coal-powered energy plant that powers the rest of the mine and the air pollution it creates. Breathing the plant's exhaust, which spreads across the valley and contributes to poor air quality across the valley, is deadly, she says, but Kennecott could do better if they had to. If the government forced the company to reduce their emissions to get their operating permits, Kennecott would comply, she says.

Udell's philosophy is one of action, but it's also a theory that has been proven by the history of Superfund: today's decisions help determine the future, for better or for worse.

"If a company is making a product, and in the process, creating this pollution, they can get permits to do that and overall, it's legal — but it's not ethical and it's not moral and it's not being a good neighbor," Udell says. "As citizens, the bar we demand is the bar we get. Not only for companies, but for our government, if we are apathetic and we don't demand much … we won't get much."

EMAIL: achoate@desnews.com

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