Kennecott Utah Copper is now asking all 2,100 of its workers to consider taking vacation or unpaid time off in the aftermath of a massive landslide in its Bingham Canyon Mine, which has raised the specter that the company may have to at least temporarily shut down its refining operations.
Previously, the company had asked only the approximately 800 or so workers who labored in the open-pit mine to voluntarily reduce their hours on the job.
"Because we have no new ore being processed, the purpose of this request is to distribute available work among employees," said Kennecott spokesman Kyle Bennett, who emphasized that the request is voluntary and that all employees who report to work will be given a job and paid their normal wages.
Last week, Kennecott told its customers that shipments of refined copper would continue as planned through April but that next month's shipments would be smaller. "Thereafter," the company said, "we do not anticipate the ability to make further shipments for the foreseeable future."
Bennett said Monday that although the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration had granted the company access to limited areas in the mine, the company's geotechnical experts "are doing their own assessment" using remote-controlled equipment, and will continue [to] take a measured approach before resuming work to ensure safety."
Bennett added that "We were able to inspect some of the key infrastructure" it included the conveyor system that carries crushed ore out of the pit to the first step in the refining process "and found that it suffered little or no damage." He noted that a functioning conveyor system will be important once it is determined that ore recovery efforts can safely be restarted.
In the meantime, Kennecott is hauling a limited amount of ore from a stockpile near the mine to feed its concentrator and smelting operations, but that may last only a few more weeks.
Scott Mullins, president of the United Steelworkers of America Local 392, said union members remain "pretty optimistic" about the future of the mine.
"What we do know is that the company is committed to seeing the mine return to production, and we'll be side by side with them in that effort," he said. The United Steelworkers of America represent about 1,500 of Kennecott's 2,100 employees.
Mullins said there has been "absolutely no talk of layoffs" by the company. "And until we hear otherwise from the company, any talk about that is just rumor."
The massive landslide hit Kennecott's open-pit copper mine the night of April 10 along the northeast wall, dropping an estimated 165 million tons of rock and dirt into the mine. Although the slide was anticipated and all employees were evacuated ahead of time, its size and scope were much larger than expected. More than a dozen pieces of heavy equipment were damaged or rendered inoperable.