Peg McEntee: Wow! My first pit stop at Kennecott's mine
It's possible that I'm the only lifelong Utahn who hadn't been to Kennecott's Bingham Canyon copper mine until Thursday, when the company held an onsite media briefing.
"You are not serious," someone said. "How could you not have been to the mine?"
Well, I guess I don't get out much.
But once we were at the rim of the pit, there were no words. It is an impossibly enormous gouge in the Earth, 2.75 miles wide at the top and three-quarters of a mile deep. The April 10 landslide weighing in at 165 million tons sent ocher hues stretching from nearly top to bottom, where it settled at a depth of 300 feet.
Kennecott knew the slide was coming for months and monitored it carefully, pulling the workers out of the pit in the days before. The massive movement even popped up on seismographs at the University of Utah.
Seeing the mine was one of those times when you marvel at human expertise and still mourn the transformation that turned much of the eastern slope of the Oquirrh Mountains into a vast stretch of waste rock.
The mine opened 110 years ago and produces copper, gold, silver and molybdenum. On Thursday, giant haul trucks roared by constantly. They have 12Â½-foot-tall tires and are 29 feet wide and 51 feet long for a total of 1,500 square feet just a tad smaller than my house.
Kennecott employs about 2,100 workers, the bulk of them union members. For many, it's a generational job. Richard Brewster, an equipment operator, has worked there for decades, just as his grandfather and uncles did.
But the landslide means that copper production will be way down for the rest of this year, which could mean lost jobs and scant supplies for customers until the mine can return to full production sometime next year.
Given the operation's environmental impact, critics may applaud that. But it's only fair to say that since the worldwide mining company Rio Tinto took over in 1989, it has spent billions on modernization and cleanup of old mine sites and groundwater remediation.
It also has remediated soil and water and improved its pollution-prevention programs. And it stewards the 3,670-acre Inland Sea Shorebird Reserve on the south end of the Great Salt Lake.
Still, as we drove away from the pit in the company bus, I couldn't stop staring at the miles of mountainside waste rock, a product of more than a century of mining.
The waste north of the mine is pre-1970s. Kennecott is not required to reclaim those slopes and, given how steep they are, couldn't if it wanted to, said company spokesman Justin Jones.
Nor is the company required to reclaim the waste south of the mine, but "we've always wanted to see how we could fix it," Jones said. "We're looking for creative solutions that may be possible, but that we don't have at the moment."
Kennecott has been able to restore a small part of that mountainside.
In the meantime, the Bingham Canyon mine will remain visible from space and from the Salt Lake Valley, a reminder that industries that sustain generations of workers and customers have their price.
It's comforting to hope, though, that someday the Oquirrhs will be green again.
Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter, @Peg McEntee.