Kennecott is up to something big. Along with a host of government entities, private developers and NGOs, the company is set to remake the face of western Salt Lake County. Again.
While the name is synonymous with open pit mining in Utah, it may not be for long. A new sister company, "Kennecott Land," is doing the developing this time-and lots of it. The largest suburban project ever to hit Utah is full steam ahead. Over an ambitious two-generation timescale, the west bench is slated to transform from a largely undeveloped 80,000 acres (with an industrial site here, wetland there) into a bustling, pre-planned suburban metropolis. Before long, the landscape will include over 150,000 new homes, transit lines, a ski resort and much more.
Kennecott has an outstanding opportunity to develop in ways that will simultaneously accomplish citizen needs, economic viability and pioneering environmental sustainability. The extent to which the west bench development is on the front lines of environmental design will set standards for how we live in the Wasatch Front for many years to come.
Kennecott Land is on a mission to trail-blaze the Salt Lake Valley's west bench sustainably. The development will be housed on the largest block of private land next to a metro area anywhere in the United States. It's an area twice the size of San Francisco and comes in at half of all the developable land remaining in the valley. As Salt Lake County's population doubles in the next 50 years, the timing may be perfect for Kennecott's massive new mixed-use urban corridor.
Kennecott plans to build about 162,800 homes along a north-south corridor of densely-packed community centers, with villages radiating outward in layers of supportive design elements. Features will include commercial ventures interspersed with houses, condos and apartments, diverse and plentiful open space, a college campus, 100,000 new jobs, at least 100,000 trees, a ski resort and much more.
The first west bench community to be developed is the southernmost, Daybreak, which sits within the outskirts of South Jordan. In 13 years, Daybreak will be made up of several distinct neighborhoods and will almost count as a city itself, with approximately 13,600 homes across Daybreak's 4,100 acres.
The first Daybreak neighborhood, Founders Village, already nears completion, which makes it a good model to understand how the entire west bench will be developed. A few thousand homes, several parks, a community garden, community center, elementary school and many other features create the new landscape.
The homes at Founders Village are constructed using low volatile organic compound finishes, low conductivity windows and granulated insulation materials, which come together to create a relatively energy-efficient and healthful house. You won't find aluminum siding but mostly natural materials on house exteriors, large porches that invite the family to enjoy time outdoors and garages mostly hidden behind the houses. Architecturally, the houses owe some of their look to dwellings built in the Salt Lake valley earlier in the 20th century.
The lots are smaller, about 0.1 acre, and the streets are narrower, than most suburban Utah roads. It all fits together nicely in a community distinct for its reduced waste and space. During the construction process, Kennecott is making a concerted effort to reuse materials: "About 33% more than other suburban developments," says Kennecott's director of sustainable development, Francisco Benavides.
On track to be the largest suburban development in the country 100% certified by the EPA's Energy Star program, Daybreak will eventually save the equivalent of about 55,000 tons of CO2 per year. Benavides says that this is "about the same as 12,000 passenger cars being taken off the road." Plus Kennecott has made it easy to save energy and ditch the car by planning shops, recreation opportunities and schools in close proximity to homes.
Founder's Village used Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building principles at the elementary school and community center including use of ground-source heating. It is yet undecided if LEED will pave the way for future public spaces or residential construction, but Benavides and colleagues stress that additional methods of sustainable development will be adopted for the next Daybreak villages and future communities.
With the growing interest in and availability of sustainable development techniques, Kennecott has plenty of room to expand their offering in future communities. Whether it's solar energy, geothermal farms, sustainably harvested wood, a stronger commitment to xeriscaping-the list is long indeed-Kennecott has potential to build a visionary west bench with broad impacts on the entire Wasatch Front. The west bench may become a model for future communities-but only if Kennecott is encouraged to move beyond "the drawing board."
One way Kennecott has chosen to observe a radical approach to urban design is preservation and cultivation of open space. Of the 80,000-plus acres that Kennecott owns on the west bench, at least 30% will be preserved as "open," including 37 miles of interconnecting trails and parks. While most open areas are and will be landscaped, Jeff Hawes, landscape manager for Kennecott, says that this is often done with water-wise plant groupings, including "many species native to Utah." Eventually, hundreds of millions of trees, shrubs, grasses and other plants will grow there.
Ivan Weber, a LEED-accredited environmental planner retired from Kennecott Utah Copper, says this approaches "exactly what the Oquirrhs require in order to remotely resemble what they should be."
According to Weber, consideration of wildlife and the broader ecosystem is a critical component of creating enduring, sustainable communities. Stressing the importance of a holistic approach that puts urban design in the context of a natural ecosystem will have plenty of benefits, says Weber, including mitigation of wildlife-human conflicts.
Open space plans for the west bench accommodate seasonal deer migration from the Oquirrhs. But wildlife, of course, is more than just deer and more than just seasonal migration. Concerning the needs of most species, there are, as yet, no plans available. Such plans could include restoring natural drainages (which once supplied wildlife and plants with water) that have been diverted and contaminated, averting harm to species as development approaches core habitat, or finding ways to minimize the effect of unfortunate wildlife-human relations such as unlawful poaching.
Few developers, if any, address these issues. But such a massive project as Daybreak-one that intersects key portions of migratory routes and will undoubtedly be cemented into the center of critical wildlife habitats-has more potential to inflict damage or harmoniously engage other species than other smaller projects.
Another component of Kennecott's open space plans is already visible to the naked eye. It's called Oquirrh Lake.
Oquirrh Lake was created for recreation, not to preserve habitat. It is a human creation that has thus far resulted in the transport of 35 million cubic feet of soil and 25,000 tons of rocks-and that's just for the first of three phases of its development. Perhaps the most curious element of counting Oquirrh Lake as open space is the threshold Kennecott has set for its sustainability-that of a golf course.
Besides contributions from precipitation, Oquirrh Lake was created and is maintained with water from Utah Lake. Since Kennecott enjoys the largest privately held water rights portfolio in the state, coming in at around 162,000 acre-feet per year (af/y), the company has enough to fill and maintain the 85-acre, 250 million-gallon Oquirrh Lake -with plenty to spare.
Enter the golf course analogy: Kennecott believes that approximately 255 acre-feet will evaporate from the lake each year, equivalent to about three feet in depth across the surface area of the lake. To keep the turf of a golf course green, by comparison, a minimum of five feet of water must be used. But should a golf course's water needs set the par for open space environmental sensitivity?
While scenic, Oqquirh Lake's place within the spirit of open space is in question for ecological reasons. Engineering ensures it will not come into contact with run-off waters. Engineering feats will also minimize the presence of species such as ducks and geese (which Greg Rasmussen, director of land development for Kennecott, called "sky cows" in a Deseret News interview). Species such as trout and bass will be stocked for recreational fishing.
The cost of the lake, of course, is more than the dip in Utah's lakes and streams and the splash in Kennecott's water rights portfolio. More than 767 average Utah families of five could be supplied with the initial water pumped from Utah Lake. Then, each year, the amount of water that evaporates could supply in excess of 250 additional families with their water needs and desires. If the families were to reduce their water needs, even more could be served.
One conservation commitment Kennecott has already made is to reduce water use by 25% before 2025, in accordance with "Slow the Flow" guidelines.
With trees, shrubs and perennials, Kennecott tries to plant species on the lower end of the water-use table in open spaces, according to Jeff Hawes. The company also provides guidance for homeowners, suggesting plant species suitable to Utah's climate.
The strictest landscaping requirement for residents is to plant less than 60% of their yard with traditional sod-the remaining 40% is up to residents. Then, turf areas must be larger than five feet wide (the radius of the traditional pop-up spray is about eight feet).
Once residents develop a plan, Kennecott advises on species grouping, spacing and other choices that will minimize water use and maintain an attractive look. In addition to educational presentations made by Kennecott and a volunteer neighborhood coalition, Kennecott has created demonstration plots that show how attractive xeriscaping can be.
In accordance with "Slow the Flow" guidelines, Kennecott offers ongoing educational efforts that stress when and how to water. Kennecott permits watering only between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., though there are no fines for violations. Founders Village uses pop-up sprays, complemented by drip systems for some landscaping.
Kennecott is also experimenting with a system that Jeff Hawes believes will "automatically detect acceptable times to water" according to measurements such as temperature, wind speed and cloudiness.
According to the Deseret Morning News, homeowners must sign a disclosure stating, among other items, that houses may sit on the site of a former evaporation pond. By signing, residents acknowledge that their property may be affected by lasting soil contamination that "could cause damage to metal objects and/or certain types of concrete" and "make it difficult for certain types of plants to grow."
For better or worse, Kennecott will continue forging a massive impact on Utah's environment, citizens and economy. While the west bench development will conserve energy, propel walkability and reduce water use, there's still a great distance to travel to create a truly environmentally trailblazing development. Dozens of sustainable techniques are left out. The primary reason, it seems, is profitability.
So that Kennecott and their parent company, Rio Tinto, can remain loyal to the capitalist spirit and maximize profit, economic incentives that ensure sustainable building must improve. The market for green communities has to become more profitable.
Among the chief ways for citizens to see that the west bench becomes more eco-friendly is to take greater acts of sustainability in our own lives. If compact fluorescents become the norm, ecological landscaping takes seed and every garage houses a hybrid (as we increase our use of bikes, carpools and mass transit), Kennecott will take notice. If we do what is necessary to reduce our ecological footprints, and elect leaders who also prioritize sustainable development, Kennecott will have a convincing model to follow and demand to meet. But until more leaders arise, developers like Kennecott will have little interest in pioneering any more risky trails in sustainable development.
Government entities must step up to their role as leaders in crafting socially responsible policy. If city, county and state bodies create rewards for efficiency and conservation with tax breaks and subsidies-and disincentives for wasteful practices -citizens, investors and corporations will see that it is in our own self-interest, and the interest of our neighbors, to take the most sustainable pathways.
If the conservation threshold of a golf course is startling, and another freeway makes you wheeze, higher standards must be set for the west bench and the future communities this project has the potential to inspire. Until then, movement toward greater sustainability may be stuck in the mud while entities like Kennecott -just like Rio Tinto, UDOT and Larry Miller (see sidebars)-continue along on their roads to develop our planet.
Jason Hardy is a student working towards animal rights, environmental sustainability and education and media reform. He has published in the Daily Utah Chronicle and the Journal of Biosocial Science.
Sidebars appearing in the print version:
Transportation: Which comes first?
The choice between transit or freeway could make or break Daybreak's sustainability
As Daybreak develops, Kennecott's plan is to construct a central transit corridor with room for busses, light rail stations, sidewalks, bike lanes and vehicle travel. This is consistent with the company's purposeful mixing of residential, recreational and commercial space that minimizes automobile use.
UTA expects a light rail line to Daybreak by 2010. The track will diverge from the existing Downtown-Sandy line at the 6400 South station and stretch along a southwesternly trajectory for 10 miles. The project will add 10 stops to the light rail system and is already being praised nationally as highly innovative.
Building a TRAX line early in the development of Founder's Village and in advance of the next Daybreak villages is consistent with a "transit-first" approach to development, according to Utahns for Better Transportation's Roger Borgenicht.
Relying on studies of cities around the country, Borgenicht is confident that the transit-first approach would have outstanding benefits for Daybreak. Vehicle miles traveled per person, vehicle trips per household and vehicle ownership would all fall below the county norm. "Household behavior follows transit investment," Borgenicht says, and he predicts activity-rich areas popping up around the light rail stations.
So long as future investments in public transportation produce a safe and reliable service that is perceived as high quality, the west bench development would have significant impacts on air pollution relative to population, exercise levels, community spirit and more. Simply put, this transportation approach enables a dense, vibrant and diverse urban corridor centering on walkability and reduced automobile use to become reality.
But the Utah Department of Transportation has other plans.
UDOT and the Wasatch Front Regional Council (WFRC), a coalition of elected officials throughout the region, are prioritizing the development of roads, lots of roads, for the west bench and region. Along with a northern expansion of the Legacy Parkway, planners are banking on a familiar option for the future-a new freeway. Even more powerful allies are lobbying for the new freeway, including vehicle-dealer Larry Miller, Zions Bank Corp. President Scott Anderson and three former Utah governors.
Called the "Mountain View Corridor" (MVC), this new freeway is proposed to run from near the Salt Lake International Airport south along 5800 West, eventually curving toward and meeting with I-15 in Lindon. Plans are to have four lanes in each direction, which may later expand to six, with an initial $2 billion price tag.
The MVC is a cornerstone of the just-released Wasatch Front Urban Area Regional Transportation Plan: 2007-2030. This authoritative report can be found at WFRC.org, where comments may be submitted.
UDOT plans to release a draft environmental impact statement for the MVC this fall. After a public comment period, suggestions from the Federal Transit Administration and a few inevitable touch-ups, UDOT is to publish a final EIS in 2008, all but cementing the long road ahead.
The impacts of yet another Wasatch Front highway are hard to overstate. Wetlands will be bulldozed, private property will be seized and air pollution will surely grow. A high school and two elementary schools sit in close proximity to the planned route of the freeway, a fact that public health studies suggest will affect lung capacity and other health indicators of children who recreate in the school's fields.
Borgenicht believes a road-first development scheme ensures that development will occur around exits and intersections of inevitable arterial roads. This approach ensures that land with potential uses such as open space, high-density structures and pathways (walking, biking and public) is slated to become parking lots and big-box stores. Borgenicht predicts the freeway may force residents to reduce their transportation options to: "Which car should I take?"
"Once you lock in automobile-dependent big-box stores," says Borgenicht, "you lose the ability for the transit system to provide more choices for more people."
The current plan is to complete the freeway by 2015-2020 and for public transit to arrive on the scene after the year 2030. A freeway must be the region's top priority, its advocates assume, because traffic congestion is on the rise and increased automobile use is inevitable. In today's Salt Lake County, each house is responsible for 12 car trips per day. The WFRC report predicts that not only will trends like this continue, but that miles traveled will actually increase by 70% (notably ahead of the projected population rise of 42%) over the next two decades. This means that roads must be built-and with construction costs ever on the rise, better sooner than later.
The WFRC report also considers the scenario of a north-south high-capacity transit corridor a few blocks down, along 5600 West. If it is built by the end date of the study, the year 2030, 5,000 to 6,000 daily riders will board the train (or bus or trolley). This relatively paltry transit demand necessarily leads to its devaluation. A decade ago, the same ridership model projected that 2007's Downtown-Sandy light rail line would serve 16,000 riders per day. In actuality, TRAX now serves 55,000 to 60,000 daily riders.
If we assume that automobile reliance will continue and even accelerate over the coming decades, and we then build to suit this assumption, Salt Lake County is going the opposite direction of the transit-first model that has been so successful in regions such as Portland and Dallas.
The freeway-first approach seems antithetical to the will of multiple citizen groups, including Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. Their recent meta-analysis of medical studies indicates that thousands of Utahns die prematurely every year because of air pollution. Third on their prescription list to combat this "health crisis" is: "Plan for major expansions of mass transit service throughout the Wasatch Front. Make it free to the public." After all, vehicles currently account for 65% of air pollution along the Wasatch Front.
Kennecott's vision for a walkable community has the potential to develop a vibrant and energy-conservative west bench corridor, but the likelihood for success is diminished if the Mountain View Corridor is developed as planned. Borgenicht believes that Daybreak and the west bench have the necessary components to indeed reduce resident vehicle use to just six or fewer vehicle trips per household, but only if public transit is put first.
Transportation is a critical component in determining whether Daybreak and the west bench are to become an environmentally conservative and sustainable model for other developers around the region to follow-or just another homogenous suburban community.
Attempting to solve one pollution problem creates new ones
Can Kennecott Land make up for the sins of its sister? Kennecott Utah Copper continues to add more than 80% of all chemical pollutants in Utah's environment each and every year. Then there's the question of the soup of mine-related contaminants in the aquifer below much of the southwest portion of the valley.
While based in Utah, both Kennecotts are actually a subsidiary of Rio Tinto, a massive multinational mining corporation headquartered in London. The company's motto: "A world leader in finding, mining and processing the earth's mineral resources." Just like Kennecott, Rio owns its own controversial history (in the areas of ecological destruction and human rights). Similarly, it recently embarked on environmentally friendly projects.
Not as easy to see as the tracts of open space being developed and set aside is the plentiful supply of water below the earth's surface. Kennecott has begun treating an aquifer that supplies culinary (drinking) water. Alas, the treatment is a bit of a headache due to decades of contamination from a stunning cast of mine-related pollutants.
The skeleton of the aquifer's tale starts with evaporation ponds. Used for storing water contaminated with mine tailings, the ponds were improperly lined and, as a consequence, both highly acidic and contaminated water leaked from the ponds into the aquifer at rates estimated as high as seven million gallons a day from the 1960s onward.
Two contamination plumes, named A and B, together cover about 72 square miles, or three million acre-feet of water. This is about one-seventh the amount of water held by the Great Salt Lake.
In 1986, the EPA and state of Utah filed a natural resources damage claim against Kennecott for the mess. Over time, a consent decree was formed among stakeholders; among other things, it requires Kennecott and the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District (JVWCD) to treat enough water to provide for the needs of about 3,500 families.
The EPA estimated that pumping all the water out, treating it and then pumping it back into the aquifer-a process called full remediation- would cost $2.2 billion. But, thanks to the consent decree, it won't be necessary to invest such a large sum. The plan Kennecott is banking on will come in at around $184 million.
Among the differences between full remediation of the aquifer and the bare minimum required by the consent decree is the remaining contamination. The process by which the water is treated, reverse osmosis, doesn't nullify the byproduct of decades of spill; it simply treats water, leaving a byproduct behind. Since on-site storage is not feasible, the treated water goes to the taps and the acidic waters and contaminated byproduct is traveling-somewhere.
For now, it's en route to an existing tailings pond near Magna, but the byproduct is not expected to rest there forever (indeed, the master plan calls for houses to be built in this area). Like most Utahns, you are probably familiar with how the story of hazardous material storage ends. Let's see … how did that go? Oh, yeah. No one is entirely sure.
Kennecott and JVWCD had applied for a permit to dump the acidic water and concentrates directly into the Jordan River, which would ferry most of the soup to the Great Salt Lake. The permit application was recently withdrawn amid questions of how this would affect other wells and aquifers and, most importantly, the delicate Great Salt Lake ecosystem.
No one is sure what to do with the byproduct. The decisions await recommendations from the new taskforce charged by the state of Utah with determining if selenium (and other contaminants) concentrated at these levels may be harmful to the Great Salt Lake environment. Results are expected this fall.
Since selenium and other contaminants bioaccumulate in organisms of fin and feather-meaning that as more selenium is stored in a given species' tissues over time, those who feed on them will consume even more selenium, which stores in their tissues for consumption by the next level-members of the taskforce have their hands full.
A cursory search of environmental health literature yields multiple, field-documented case studies of toxic effects of selenium at well below the level deemed safe by the EPA (5 parts per billion).
Perhaps the strangest aspect to the story of selenium concerns the tailings pond in Magna: Just like the sites that led to contamination of the aquifer in the southwest valley, the pond is unlined. Weber points out that the tailings pond was not built to be a holding pond for selenium or any other byproduct concentrate. "It's too close to the lake for me," he says.
Because sand is the essential filter for the Magna tailings pond, most concentrates will be safe on site. But according to Weber, this particular form of selenium stays in solution with water and will inevitably migrate. "In geologic time," he says, "it will be in the lake. And if an earthquake hits… it will travel even quicker." Combine several plausible scenarios, like an earthquake and higher lake waters due to climate change, and you're looking at a greatly polluted Salt Lake.
Now add this to the mix: Kennecott and other industrial polluters currently pump selenium and other diluted byproduct concentrates directly into Great Salt Lake (from other contaminated sites). If the addition of aquifer contaminants isn't enough to affect the lake's ecosystem, how much is?
The contaminants are of concern while in the aquifer, but Weber believes that they are not currently causing any demonstrable harm to species. If allowed to be deposited in the lake, the contaminants may be interfering with brine, birds and a broader ecosystem. Weber's argument is that since the lake provides critical habitat for nesting shorebirds and water fowl, this matter is "hempispherically important and arguably globally important."
Just as with radioactive waste, public policy should be applied to solve current problems in an anticipatory manner that assures minimal impact on any other systems. In this case, the "solution" of temporary storage at the Magna tailings pond and eventual placement in the Great Salt Lake (this is, at present, the only long-term option being discussed) may be just as bad, if not worse, than the original problem.
The issue of contamination is much larger, however, since selenium isn't the only byproduct worth examining. The south arm of the Great Salt Lake already has the highest level of mercury measured by the U.S. Geological Survey in any water nationwide.
The aquifer cleanup is a complicated issue. Even if $2 billion is a hefty fee to fully remediate the polluted aquifer, it would have theoretically allowed for the use of 100% of the aquifer's water. Instead, the consent decree dictates a partial splash of treatment and lets Kennecott pack up after 40 years.
Not all stakeholders can be consulted, either. Future generations along the Wasatch Front will have very few new water sources to consider; thus, the remaining aquifer waters may be considered as a culinary source. If so, who will supply the dime for clean up? JVWCD engineer Mark Atenzio believes that less than 10% of the current contamination will remain after Kennecott ceases treatment, but remediation of that remaining contamination-at some future point-is likely to be a costly matter.