MAGNA Kennecott Utah Copper's Paula Doughty this past week described driving across a field of old mining waste on the north side of Magna as like taking a trip across Kansas.
"It's kind of boring," Doughty said during a recent tour. "There's not a whole heck of a lot here."
Yes and no.
A century of digging at Kennecott's Bingham Canyon Mine has resulted in a hole that is two and a half miles across at the top and three-quarters of a mile deep. You can see the hole from space.
Dig a hole, create a monolithic pile or two.
Two public tours of those piles April 23 and one April 26 will give 27 people those who have signed up so far an up-close look at what is essentially the byproduct of moving a mountain 15 miles away in the name of mining over the course of 100 years.
"We want to be open about our operations," Kennecott spokesman Kyle Bennett said.
They'll come looking for answers about seismic stability, risks and public safety related to one pile. Many, some skeptical of Kennecott's word, will want to know more about what they can't see on top of the piles.
They'll see drainage pipes and pipes used to monitor water depth below the surface of the old south impoundment. There will be a view of all the water on the newer pile, overlooking the Great Salt Lake. They'll learn more about the numbers behind Kennecott's tailings operations.
Like how Kennecott's newer north impoundment is 3,200 surface acres, with less than one-quarter covered by water that at its deepest is 25 feet or so. Along I-80 the earthen dam holding all that water back is about 80 feet high, with about 65 tons per hour of water and tailings being poured on top.
The north impoundment has been growing since it was activated about eight years ago, with the more coarse tailings used to build a dam around both the standing water and accumulating finer tailings particles that look like gray sand. The impoundment will be about 250 feet high by 2022, about 14 years before the viability of the Bingham mine is expected to run out.
"A lot of alternatives will be evaluated," Doughty said about where to put tailings after 2022.
The 5,700 surface acres of south impoundment, reaching heights of 250 feet, no longer hold water from waste operations. Except for a small pond that forms during heavy rain at a low point on the old impoundment, it's dry.
But the south impoundment, or rather the southeast corner of the old pond, has become the epicenter of controversy lately.
It's become a matter of trust between Kennecott and residents, who live as close as about 1,500 feet from the so-called Magna Corner.
Twenty years ago, then company president Frank Joklik declined to inform the public about a report that said the corner was seismically unstable. There was a risk back then that, if a magnitude 7.25 earthquake struck, the corner could rupture and send a flow of tailings into homes.
"It was not built as an engineered dam to hold materials," Doughty said. The opposite, however, is true of the north impoundment, where she and Bennett said the dam has been built to the highest state and federal standards.
A generation ago Joklik quietly set in motion measures to shore up the south impoundment while also buying up homes and property in what could have been the affected area in a major quake.
"He did everything right from an engineering and geotechnical standpoint," Doughty, a geologist, said about Joklik's actions to fix the problem with the pond.
But when news of the 20-year-old report surfaced only last month, residents cried foul and demanded to know more. Kennecott's Andrew Harding, president for just a few months, put himself on the firing line during meetings with residents, apologizing for Joklik's public relations sins and saying the company is much more transparent today.
The relationship rebuilding continued.
The Salt Lake County Council recently formed a committee to pick an engineering firm to do a new study of the southeast corner of the old impoundment. Harding gave the council $250,000 to pay for the study, emphasizing the need to keep Kennecott out of the investigation for the sake of public confidence.
And now, they are doing the public tours of the tailings pond, another step in regaining people's trust.
"I think that's the whole point ... to show we're not hiding anything," Doughty said.
People on the tours will see a good view of Magna, the golf course owned by Kennecott and lots of vacant land that forms a buffer between the piles and people who live in Magna. They'll see cattle and horses below as they climb higher up the waste impoundments.
Some of the answers to their questions will be visible no water on the south impoundment. In fact, it's so dry right now that the 99.9 percent of the impoundment that Doughty said supports vegetation, most planted by Kennecott, looks brown, with some green starting to show. The wheat, rye and fescue haven't yet taken off this year.
A few critics of Kennecott have said in recent meetings that a big issue is the chemicals in the dust that, despite Kennecott's best efforts, still blows around in high winds. Doughty said Kennecott stopped using cyanide in 2005 to help extract gold from rock and that any waste would break down in sunlight.
"The chemicals are not the issue," she said.
For certain, the issues are trust, what has or might happen to property values because of the old report and Joklik's reaction to it. Bennett hopes the tours and a new study will help.
"It will ease people's minds," he said about the study.On the tours people will get an earful from Kennecott about accelerometers, piezometers, wick drains, setback dikes and deflections berms and how Kennecott believes that, because of all of that, Magna residents living near the south impoundment are much more safe today than 20 years ago.