The removal of thousands of cubic yards of contaminated soil from the west end of Bingham Creek is part of a large-scale testing project, not a cover-up, Kennecott officials said Tuesday.

Crews from Envirocon, a Montana environmental reclamation contractor, have been scraping the earth in and around the creek bed for almost two weeks, prompting questions from state health officials and nearby residents.Stung by insinuations that the work appeared to be an attempt to remove evidence of contamination ahead of an investigation, Kennecott officials invited reporters to tour the site Tuesday afternoon and decide for themselves.

Kennecott spokesman Gregory H. Boyce said the mining company is merely trying to find out how long it might take and how much it might cost to clean up the contaminated creek bed.

"What you're looking at," Boyce said, pointing to a 300-yard-long segment of the creek that had been scoured clean, "is a test program to answer those questions."

While emphasizing that Kennecott does not accept responsibility for the contamination, Boyce said the mining company is as interested as all other affected property owners in resolving the possible health hazard. The first three miles of the 11-mile-long creek are on Kennecott land.

Bingham Creek became a major health issue in the Salt Lake Valley on Oct. 4 when state environmental health officials disclosed that it was heavily contaminated with lead, arsenic and other toxic substances.

Some samples taken from the usually dry creek bed revealed lead levels as high as 30,500 parts per million, which is 30,000 ppm higher than what the Environmental Protection Agency deems acceptable and at least five times higher than the average concentrations at Sharon Steel.

Subsequent blood tests administered to 165 children and four adults who live along the creek indicated no immediate health threat, but most experts agreed that the contaminants will eventually have to be removed.

The EPA has announced that it will be collecting additional soil samples from residential areas Dec. 10-21 to assess the extent of contamination and define possible remedies. The Jordan View Estate subdivision and other densely populated neighborhoods have been targeted by the EPA for the additional tests.

Utah Environmental Health Director Kenneth Alkema told reporters that the state was aware of Kennecott's plans to conduct its own tests. However, he said state officials were not apprised of the scope of those tests.

During the past two weeks, Kennecott's contractor has removed more than 7,000 cubic yards of earth from the 300-yard-long segment of the creek. The huge mounds of material have been stockpiled and covered on the site, which is adjacent to the Trans-Jordan Landfill.

"Historical records indicate that more than two dozen lead mines and lead mills operated in Bingham Canyon beginning in 1874 and evidently discharged their tailings into the creek," Boyce said. "None of these lead mines or milling operations were or are related to Kennecott, and none still operates today."

Boyce said Kennecott is a victim of the contamination, "like everybody else," and that it has an interest in finding out how best to remove the contamination. "It's ludicrous to suggest that we might be trying to clean up an 11-mile-long creek through residential areas without anyone knowing about it. Everything is being done on our own property, with state knowledge and in open view."