High copper prices are welcome news to Kennecott Utah Copper officials, but if they stay too high too long, manufacturers might find other alternative material to produce their products.

On the other hand, if copper prices are too low, the operation at the Bingham mine will not be as profitable as originally intended, according to Frank L. Fisher, director of BP Minerals America, parent company of Kennecott Utah Copper.Last December, the price of copper was $1.46 per pound, but that has dropped to near $1 per pound, Fisher told members of the Salt Lake Rotary Club this week in the Salt Lake Marriott Hotel. The $1 per-pound price is much better than the 55 cents-per-pound price where copper languished for several years.

Fisher said he couldn't predict how high the price of copper will remain, but he hoped it stayed high enough for the company to make a profit.

Helping the company make a profit, Fisher said, is a $400 million modernization project that is 95 percent complete and will be finished in a few months. That will make the copper production at the mine with 2,000 employees at the same level it was when Kennecott had more than 7,000 employees, he said.

The modernization program will allow the removal of 7,700 tons of ore daily that will result in 200,000 tons of refined copper annually. Also, the company will produce 300,000 ounces of gold and 2.5 million ounces of silver annually.

High labor costs, low copper prices and outdated equipment forced a closure of the mine operation in 1985, Fisher said, and after obtaining some labor concessions from the workers, the company decided to move ahead with the modernization program. Under the present rate of copper ore removal, the mine will last for 30 years, he said.

The modernization program includes construction of an ore crusher inside the mine into which the huge diesel trucks will dump the copper ore. After an initial crushing, it will be taken via a large conveyor belt five miles through a tunnel and then overland to a stockpile area.

From there it drops onto another conveyor for transport to a new concentrator facility where the copper ore is ground into a substance with the consistency of face powder, mixed with water and sent through a pipeline to the refinery near Magna.

Fisher said this process will eliminate the operating of 1,000 ore cars. The water from the slurry line will be pumped back to the concentrator to be used again.

The final result, in addition to the refined copper, is a great amount of tailings, Fisher said, which prompted a question from a Rotarian about concerns of Magna residents when the wind blows the dry tailings.

Fisher said winds that kick up tailings at the 5,000-acre ponds are especially severe in the spring. However, he said a new piping system and doubling the capacity of the wet tailings going into the pond will keep the dust down.