The recent landslide at Kennecott's Bingham Canyon mine and the possibility it may shut down raises an important question for Utahns. What unseen future financial and environmental liabilities lie in wait for Utahns? What if more slides, perhaps outward, impact neighboring communities?
For decades, the Division of Oil Gas and Mining (DOGM) has been asking Kennecott to address the Bingham Canyon mine bonding, which is zero dollars. When the mine closes, Kennecott could walk away leaving many millions of dollars of reclamation costs for Utah citizens.
I learned that Kennecott is close to proposing a dollar amount for that bond. Today, this is more urgent than ever. This mine is a major contributor to six dangerous air pollutants (carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, particulate matter, and volatile organic compounds and the dominating amounts of many of the 187 HAPs (Hazardous Air Pollutants)) in the Salt Lake Valley, and also contributes many toxic materials to water bodies and aquifers in the area.
Mining reclamation history has shown that costs are most often passed on to taxpayers. These costs are rarely stated to citizens at the start of projects in favor of talking about contributions to the economy. In a study of coal mining in West Virginia, when externalities such as natural resources damages and health impacts were considered in view of costs passed on to state taxpayers, the net to the economy was a negative $600 million. Such a burden may be pending for Utahns on a much larger scale.
Addressing the landslide costs could be as high as $1 billion. The concern here is first that Kennecott knew of ground movement and the risks associated with it; they also likely are aware of other threats within and without the pit. The damage to air quality, water bodies, and aquifers have and will occur outside of the pit. Utahns could face billions of dollars in reclamation costs if this mine remains not bonded or minimally bonded.
In Utah, there are seven major mines that disturb approximately 31,000 acres, for which the state has required a total amount of $51 million averaging $1,646 per acre. The DOGM has provided an exemption from reclamation and closure requirements at the Bingham Canyon mine, severely undermining the state's ability to require adequate financial assurance.
Utah has the lowest financial assurance liability of any western state ($1,646/acre). Washington is the highest ($42,360/acre), 25 times higher than Utah. Costs across the states are relatively equal, but it is the political will or lack thereof for the legislatures to assign reclamation costs that protect the citizenry that differs. The costs of addressing external damages such as health and mitigating water body and aquifer damages may cost many millions of dollars.
There are other costs looming. Litigation costs for enforcement and the contingencies from the impact of natural disasters such as earthquakes on these mines call for an additional $100 million contingency bond.
The pit's impact on groundwater resources is large, generally unprecedented in an urban area and undefined by any responsible study to date. Keeping the pit from filling up with acidic water from where it will flow into miles of underground workings, and then into ground water is a massive task. As the bond stands now, the public will pay.
The DOGM needs to look over the hill and make an accurate assessment of potential future costs of this mine and other mines resulting in near to zero costs passed on to Utahns so that Utah citizens can breathe easier now and for their children in the future.
Terry Marasco is the interim director of Utah Moms for Clean Air and a member of the Utah Clean Air Alliance.
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