Features and Occasionals

Tall Tailings

By Sallie Dean Shatz

Kennecott plays coy with the EPA, Utah’s Department of Air Quality and Salt Lake City officials as it lays a plan to mine the mineral-rich dustpiles of yesteryear.

Driving into Salt Lake City from the west, as you pass Saltair, a 10-story pile of what appears to be sand—what mining engineers call tailings (think of “tail end”)—looms on the horizon. For five miles, the pile rises on your right, looking like an over-full sand box with an occasional pipe and patches of moisture. The pile, currently covering 9,400 acres (940 Salt Lake City blocks) contains around two billion tons of tailings from the world-famous Bingham Canyon mine.

The moist patches result from a sprinkler system, one of Kennecott’s futile attempts to keep the dust it generates from obliterating the sky on windy days. From Salt Lake City, the tailings piles appear to be no more than a bump on the western horizon until the wind blows. Then the talcum powder size fines are stirred up into dust clouds borne on the wind. Viewed from above, the tailings look like strange ponds—disturbing, industrial teal-green bodies of water with tendrils of aqua and other greens reaching out toward the dry edges.

It wasn’t always that way. When pioneers ventured west from Salt Lake City, they would skirt the vast wetlands on the southeast shore of Great Salt Lake, rounding the north end of the Oquirrh Mountains for one last view of the valley and the Wasatch Mountains. Then in 1906, Utah Copper Company, the corporate ancestor of Kennecott Utah Copper Corporation, began dumping a slurry of water and worked-out leftovers onto the wetlands adjacent to the lake. As the tailings built up and dried out, bulldozers raised the edges so more slurry could be disposed of.

The older portion of the tailings ponds has been reclaimed with grasslands and shrubs. “The reclamation has provided typical Great Basin habitat on the south impoundment which is now popular with growing numbers and species of wildlife,” according to the Environmental Steward­ship portion of Kennecott’s website. But a large portion of the 9,400 acres remains unmarked by vegetation, leaving the job of keeping the dust down to an array of giant Rainbirds.

Dust isn’t the only problem with the tailings pile.

The Wasatch Front is ripe for earthquakes, with faults crisscrossing the valley, one of them close to the tailings ponds. The tailings ponds’ location  between the town of Magna and Great Salt Lake could lead to disastrous fates should an earthquake occur. Both would be flooded with wet tailings filled with toxins. Since the revelation, in 1997, of the pond’s seismic instability and the threat it posed to Magna, the ponds have been dewatered by giant pumps for seismic stability.

Plans for expansion

Kennecott is currently planning a massive expansion of its operations to access a rich vein of ore in the Bingham Canyon mine. The “Cor­ner­stone” expansion, which will extend the life of operations at the Bingham Canyon mine until 2038, will affect every aspect of Kennecott’s operations from the mine to the tailings ponds.

Expanding the tailings ponds is part of “Corner­stone” plan. Kennecott’s Bingham Canyon mine complex, one of the largest mining operations in the world, currently has 70 permits from Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Division of Air Quality (DAQ), Division of Water Quality (DWQ) and the Department of Oil, Gas and Mining (DOGM), as well as the EPA and the Corp of Engineers on the federal level. Kennecott has played this complex web of agencies and regulations to its advantage.

The Wasatch Front is the only area in the EPA’s Region Eight that is out of attainment for PM2.5 and PM10 — the worst air pollutants. The area regularly has some of the worst air in the nation. In spite of this, the state recently granted Kennecott the approval order it needed to begin their Cornerstone expansion. Environ­mentalists may challenge this move in court.

Terry Marasco, at the time the communications director for the Utah Coalition for Clean Air, and a leading advocate for clean air and water, told CATALYST he was approached by Bryce Bird, director of the Division of Air Quality, after the public meeting of the DAQ board for establishing a State Implementaion Plan for PM 2.5 on June 1. Bird asked if Marasco would legally challenge the May approval of the state implementation plan. Bird told Marasco that the DAQ did not have the funding to defend a suit.

Bird met with Marasco and others working on similar issues on June 15. Among the requests from the group to the DAQ were that the state not sign the approval order (similar to a building permit for Kennecott’s increase) until the 15-year backlog of issues with the EPA over Utah’s state air quality plan to come into compliance with the Clean Air Act were sorted out. There are, at present, 51 items in limbo, dating back to the Clinton Administration. The group also requested a sit-down meeting with Kennecott, the EPA and concerned citizens, initiated by the DAQ.

Bird did not respond to any of Marasco’s requests or return subsequent emails. He issued the Approval Order for the Cornerstone expansion on June 27.

The EPA is in a more challenging position. Large staff turnovers have erased institutional memory related to this issue. Impending budget cuts and the current Congress‘s attempts to strip the organization of its enforcement powers have made their job more difficult.

Enter the Army Corps of Engineers

The plan to increase Kennecott’s capacity requires an additional area for tailings after recoverable materials have been processed out. The company has chosen an almost 2,000-acre site northeast of the current tailings pond—within Salt Lake City’s boundaries—to accommodate another 2.1 billion to 2.4 billion tons of tailings. Re-engineering of the five-mile section next to I-80 will raise the height an additional 178 feet. The Kennecott-owned property, currently zoned M-1 (Light Manufacturing), sits directly across I-80 from Salt Lake City’s proposed Northwest Quadrant development. About a third of the land is wetlands. Two rivers flow through the site and would require diversion.

It is the Army Corps of Engineers’ job to consider the Environmental Impact Statement when waters of the United States are involved and come up with the “least environmentally damaging practicable alternative.” There are 774 acres of “waters of the United States” involved in the tailings ponds expansion application. The Corps appears to have a tendency to consider and then say yes: Nationally, it rejects only about 1% of the applications it receives and approves the rest with some mitigation.

Mining has changed in 107 years; evolving mining technology allows ever-higher percentages of precious metals such as copper, gold, silver and molybdenum to be yielded before the residue goes into the tailings ponds.

Kennecott is studying the older portions of the tailings ponds with an eye toward recycling. The area that would be reprocessed is the already reclaimed area—the restored Great Basin habitat so popular with wildlife—with the older, richer tailings at the bottom.

“Kennecott believes that significant recoverable copper, molybdenum and gold remain in those tailings,” according to Kennecott’s application to the Army Corps of Engineers for a permit to expand the tailings area. This application is the only place thus far that reprocessing the tailings has been mentioned during the entire Cornerstone permitting process. The document containing this revelation was obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.

Problem is, it seems that when the DAQ approved the Cornerstone implementation plan on May 4, its director, Bryce Bird, was unaware of Kennecott’s intention to reprocess yesteryear’s tailings. Consequently, the tonnage of material to be moved for reprocessing is not included in the DAQ-approved 32% increase in capacity. Neither are equipment emissions resulting from the excavation of the tailings, the dust potential inherent in disturbing the reclaimed tailings nor how that dust would be contained. Bird claimed he was hearing of the reprocessing plans for the first time during a discussion for this article on July 18, two months after his presentation to the UDAQ board, indicating that the board members who voted to approve the increase were also unaware of Kennecott’s intention to re-mine the tailings and all the associated emissions.

Salt Lake City’s surprise

“This is certainly news to the city, troubling to say the least, and it certainly heightens our concern over Kennecott’s expansion into city limits,” says David Everitt, the mayor’s chief of staff.

Everett Joyce, senior planner in the City’s Planning Division says he had access to only the scoping information from the Corps on the proposed tailings expansion, not the entire document. It seems the city planners had been unaware of Kennecott’s intention to reprocess the tailings when they submitted their comments to the Corps. The comments cited concerns about “the potential impact on the entry gateway to the city, future impact on residential development north of I-80, loss of potential industrial development south of I-80 due to the elimination of industrial use area from the tailings expansion itself and disruption to the transportation grid and development patterns, and due to interruptions to the existing natural drainage courses both on-site and on adjacent properties.”

“This will be sorted out as part of the process,” said Jana Kettering, Kennecott’s principal adviser, Media Relations and Communications.

What is the city going to do in January 2013 when the Army Corps of Engineers signs off on this project with some possible mitigation, and the Utah Department of Oil, Gas and Mining issue their permit, and Kennecott applies for a zoning change? Would the city stand as the only entity holding up the show?

“It’s impossible to tell until we get down the road,” says Everitt. “It is a public and in-depth process before the City Council even considers it. There has been nothing from Kennecott to indicate that they are applying for a land-use change.”

There is no master plan for the Northwest Quadrant; the process has stalled in controversy. And until there is a master plan, historically, zoning doesn’t change. But the Northwest Quadrant conceptual thinking wasn’t headed towards a big pile of tailings.

Hours before going to press, CATALYST has learned that several western environmental and public health organizations, including some based in Utah, will be filing an intent to sue Rio Tinto, parent company of Kennecott. They contend that for the last several years Rio Tinto has exceeded the legally enforceable limit of the total amount of material they are allowed to mine, and that limit is enforceable under the Clean Air Act as administered by the EPA.

Sallie Dean Shatz is a photographer and writer living in Salt Lake City.

This article was originally published on August 1, 2011.