MAGNA, Utah — 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. "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."
Norcross has embroiled himself in a battle that rages between the world's need for natural resources, a company that serves that appetite, and an environment that will be shaped 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 . because we'd just as soon take care of it now versus in the future."
Nevertheless, there are rifts between Kennecott and residents like Norcross who are skeptical of the company's altruism 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 they make the pond even bigger on an unstable base. He also worries the company might one day lapse in maintenance of the ponds as they 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.Comment on this story
"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."
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," Haggart says. "I don't think that should be a lot to ask for."