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Published May 5, 2013 9:08 pm

Mine lesson: Diversify the economy
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It is not necessary to say one critical thing about Kennecott Utah Copper's Bingham Canyon mine to come to the conclusion that it is risky for even an economically diverse metro area such as Salt Lake City to get too comfortable with the extractive economy.

On April 10, a massive landslide at the mine put the immediate future of the operation — and, with it, a significant part of the local economy — into doubt. No one was killed or injured in the mishap and, as is not always the case when something goes wrong at a mining operation in Utah, there seems to be no suspicion whatsoever on the part of government or union representatives that there is any blame to be assigned to human greed or carelessness.

It's just one of those things that happens.

But, when it happens, and the output of the mine is expected to be cut in half, it ripples through the local economy. The mine waved off some new hires who were about to begin training, then started encouraging current employees to either burn off vacation time or take unpaid leave.

By late last week, company officials were saying that at least some of their 2,100 employees would have to be laid off later this month. At this writing, no one was sure how many workers, or for how long.

Meanwhile, local government officials were seriously considering the fact that Kennecott's reduced value would mean a big drop in the property taxes owed by the company. And that stands to mean a property tax increase, though no one yet knows how large, for the rest of the county, police and fire services and the Jordan and Granite school districts.

To the company's credit, the $210,000 the mine's now-closed visitors center raised for local charities last year will be made up out of the company's own funds.

This should be a teachable moment for Utah leaders who are looking for the best ways to build the state's economy and tax base for the future. Even when a mine, well or other sort of extraction operation is run by a deep-pocketed multinational with a good safety record, the economic value of that operation is finite. Even without a landslide, a mine that was once expected to end its useful life sometime between 2016 and 2021 is now seen to keep producing only through 2029.

Then what? And what about smaller communities, where the temptation, and the risk, of hitching their wagons to the boom-bust-exhaustion cycle of commodities is even greater?

Government and business leaders from throughout Utah should be on a path to take maximum advantage of the sustainable parts of our economy — tourism, outdoor recreation and a clean and beautiful state — that will never run dry.