MAGNA — Some Utahns are proudly showing off Olympic medals this week, but they're not athletes. They're workers and executives at Kennecott Utah Copper Corp., the company that's providing gold, silver and copper for this summer's Olympic games in London.
"We're not making the medals here; we are making the metal here," said Matthew Lengerich, general manager of Kennecott's Bingham Canyon Mine. "Kennecott's providing the metal for 4,700 medals that will be presented at the Olympics. Each one of them is about 14 ounces."
Ninety-nine percent of the metal for the medals comes from the open-pit mine at Bingham Canyon in southwestern Salt Lake County. Known as the biggest man-made hole on Earth, the mine is owned by Kennecott's parent company, London-based Rio Tinto. About 1 percent of the Olympic metal is from a Rio Tinto mine in Mongolia.
"It's a tremendous source of pride to the Kennecott Utah Copper employees," Lengerich said.
For its Olympic metals-to-medals project, Kennecott refined 98 pounds of gold, 6 tons of silver and a couple of tons of copper. The metals have been shipped to Europe. Bronze is an alloy of copper, zinc and tin. Tin is being added from mines in England and Australia. Once the proper alloys are made, the metals are molded into blank medals.
"Those blanks will go to the U.K. where they'll get processed at the royal mint in Wales," Lengerich said. "Those medals are what you'll see presented to the athletes."
The company obtained six of the medals temporarily from London to show to selected visitors at the Bingham Canyon Mine Visitor Center. The gold, silver and bronze medals arrived in a metal suitcase, escorted by a security guard.
The only other time Kennecott had the Olympic medals contract was for the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. Although the gold, silver and copper for the medals is valued at about $7.3 million, the company is providing the metal "on-the-house."
"These medals are donated by Kennecott Utah Copper and Rio Tinto to the Olympics as part of our sponsorship of the games," Lengerich said.
That sponsorship is controversial in some quarters. Cherise Udell, founder of Utah Moms for Clean Air, has traveled to London twice to join protests against Rio Tinto's environmental record.
"In the process of mining for that metal," Udell said, "they are creating a substantial amount of air pollution that is permanently damaging our children's lungs. And therefore as a result, our children potentially will never be able to compete in the Olympics."
Lengerich said he did not want to address those charges directly, but he did say Kennecott's leaders share certain values with the Olympic movement.
"In every decision that we make here at Kennecott Utah Copper, we're considering the social, the economic and the community impacts," Lengerich said. "We think that gives us an opportunity to play a big part in the greenest games ever."
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