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?

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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