Kennecott Utah Copper President Andrew Harding surprised the Salt Lake County Council Tuesday with a $250,000 check that will fund an independent study of Kennecott's 100-year-old south tailings impoundment in Magna.
News of the check, however, competed with a shouting match between Councilmen Joe Hatch and Michael Jensen.
Hatch was worried that Jensen, Mayor Peter Corroon and Councilman Randy Horiuchi might take "political advantage" of the situation in an election year by being involved with a committee that will pick a company to do the study.
"I take that as a direct slap," Jensen told Hatch during a council meeting. "It's about governance. It's not about politics."
Hatch said he wanted the committee expanded to include more people who don't have anything to gain politically.
Kennecott's only request for the committee's makeup is that it be mostly seated by Magna residents. In an April 8 letter to Jensen, Harding wrote that Kennecott has "no intention" of being part of the committee.
Before the jabs between Hatch and Jensen, Harding told the council that if the study costs more, he will make up the difference. If the tab is less than $250,000, Harding said the council could donate the unused funds to charities that benefit Magna residents. Past studies have cost around $150,000.
Harding hopes the study will assuage Magna residents who may not believe Kennecott officials' recent claims that the impoundment, mainly its southeast corner, would hold up or liquefy and only move a little in a strong earthquake. After all, 20 years ago no one except a few officials with Kennecott and the state knew about a study that said the southeast corner was seismically unsafe.
"It is in everyone's best interest to proceed with the independent assessment in a timely manner," Harding told Jensen in his letter.
Harding recently apologized in two meetings with Magna residents in as many weeks. He restated his mea culpa again this week to the council, vowing that Kennecott would be much more transparent today if a potential risk to public health and safety could be linked to the company's mining operations.
Harding, who has been company president for about four months, said Tuesday that a public engagement process around 1999 put the word out about upgrades to the southeast corner and why those improvements were needed. But only last month did residents living near the impoundment learn about the 1988 study that singled out the seismic instability.
If the new study yields negative results about the stability of the southeast corner, Harding restated in front of the council his pledge to any affected Magna residents that Kennecott will make up the difference in loss of property value.
In answering council members' questions, Harding said the old tailings pond is dry on the surface and that a "dewatering" process should remove about 20 more feet of water beneath the surface within the next 10 years, in theory eliminating the chance that the southeast corner would liquefy and flow in a strong earthquake. Kennecott currently uses its newer adjacent north impoundment along I-80 for its tailings waste.Deputy District Attorney Craig Anderson told the council that it did not appear that Kennecott had violated any county regulations or ordinances by not disclosing to Magna residents the results of the 1988 study.