Michael Brandy, Deseret News
A coalition of environmental groups have filed a federal lawsuit against Kennecott Utah Copper.
We operate within strict provisions established by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Utah Division of Air Quality.

SALT LAKE CITY — A coalition of environmental groups have filed a federal lawsuit against Kennecott Utah Copper, a subsidiary of Rio Tinto, over what they call "the company's failure to protect clean air in Salt Lake County and beyond."

WildEarth Guardians, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and Utah Moms for Clean Air filed suit Monday in U.S. District Court for Utah. At issue are what the suit claims are ongoing violations of the federal Clean Air Act at Kennecott's Bingham Canyon Copper Mine.

According to a news release, the company has violated its federal limits on ore and waste rock production for at least the past five years. These production limits were put in place in 1994 to curb particulate matter emissions and meet health standards.

In a response, Kenecott officials said the claims are without merit.

Critics argue the company has made record profits — an estimated $15 billion in the past year — and the global mining giant should use some of that money to improve air quality in Utah.

"Our air pollution is like exposing everyone of us to chronic second-hand cigarette smoke," said Dr. Brian Moench with Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. "On our worst polluted days, it is comparable to active first-hand smoking, including for our children and pregnant mothers."

Utah families deserve protection from air pollution every bit as much as they deserve protection from cigarette smoke, Moench said. Two of the three organizations have also previously been critical of Kennecott's proposed expansion of the mine operation, citing similar pollution concerns.

The groups claim that under the Clean Air Act, citizens have the right to enforce clean air laws in order to safeguard public health and welfare. The suit seeks a ruling that Kennecott is in violation of the federal law and an order that Kennecott comply with the 150.5 million tons per year production limit, as well as pay the maximum penalty of $37,500 per violation per day as allowed by federal law.

According to the lawsuit, Kennecott agreed in 1994 to limit production at its Bingham Canyon Mine to 150.5 million tons of ore and waste rock every year to keep dust, tailpipe emissions and other sources of air pollution in check. The limit was approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and adopted into federal regulations.

The suit claims that data submitted to the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining showed that Rio Tinto violated the production limit every year since 2006, reaching levels as high as 192.7 million tons in 2009 — more than 40 million tons above the limit allowed.

The suit further claims that although Kennecott has stated that production increases were authorized by the state — most recently in June 2011, when the state approved a production increase to 260 million tons annually — the increases were never approved by the EPA and the air quality impacts were not analyzed to ensure compliance with federal health standards.

The mining company denied violating the law and said it was within mandated emissions limits.

"We operate within strict provisions established by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Utah Division of Air Quality," said Kyle Bennett, Kennecott Utah Copper spokesman. "And those limits have been established to protect human health."

Bennett said Kennecott has made major efforts to improve air quality at its western Salt Lake County mine operations, thereby enhancing overall air quality along the Wasatch Front. He added that the company would continue to make investments that will provide solid benefits and "improve air quality in this valley."

Under federal law, states cannot unilaterally modify federal regulations through permits, the suit claimed. The groups also argued that Salt Lake County and other Wasatch Front counties are currently in violation of federal health limits on particulate matter.

"Although the state of Utah is an accomplice in this mess, the responsibility to protect our clean air and our health falls squarely on the shoulders of Kennecott," said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. "As citizens concerned over the impacts of air pollution on today's and future generations, we're saying enough is enough. It's time for Kennecott to come clean, comply with the law and start being a part of solving our pollution problems, not making them worse."

"Our families depend on clean air, plain and simple," said Cherise Udell, founder of Utah Moms for Clean Air. "All we're asking is that Kennecott take responsibility for protecting the health of our children and our future."

E-mail: jlee@desnews.com