In a Feb. 17 op-ed for The Tribune, "Kennecott and inversions," Kennecott senior environmental engineer Cassady Kristensen wrote that her job is to "implement solutions that help our community breathe cleaner air." Apparently those "solutions" involve spinning the facts rather than actually cleaning the air.
Kristensen depicts clean air advocates as making false claims that Rio Tinto/Kennecott is the primary source of inversion pollution. We've never made that claim. She created a straw man to advance an argument that RTK isn't really much of a contributor to our pollution problem.
The issue isn't whether RTK is responsible for inversion pollution, it's about the huge levels of pollutants the mining concern puts into our air throughout the year, not just during inversions. It's also about the widespread heavy metal contamination of our air, water, and soil from Kennecott's past and present operations.
According to data from the Utah Division of Air Quality, RTK is by far the largest single source of air pollution along the Wasatch Front, emitting 10 times more pollution overall than the next largest industrial source, the Chevron refinery. Inversions or no inversions, the raw data simply show that RTK is responsible for nearly one-third of the overall pollution released into the air over Salt Lake County.
The company is now permitted to expand the mine an additional 32 percent, an expansion of 73 percent since 1994, which equates to an increase in annual mining from 150 million to 260 million tons. We challenge Kristensen to provide details backing her claim that mining an additional 110 million tons of rock per year will not result in increased air pollution.
RTK is one of 1,600 "high priority" pollution violators in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The company self-reports 6,235 pounds of lead emissions a year from its smelter smokestack alone. The federal Centers for Disease Control reports that no amount of lead is safe, and every bit of exposure permanently harms the brains of infants and children. A potpourri of toxic and deadly heavy metals lead, cadmium, arsenic, mercury from RTK's operations constantly descends upon Salt Lake County. Heavy metals do not degrade, so our exposure to them becomes cumulatively worse every year.
RTK turns off its coal-fired power plants during the winter, drawing power from the Western grid, and plans to convert the smallest three of the four coal burners to natural gas. But Kristensen neglected to mention that this plan comes with the proviso that RTK be allowed to run those new natural gas plants during the winter, i.e. during inversions. Although natural gas is cleaner than coal, it is a huge source of nitrogen oxides, precursors of particulate pollution and ozone.
RTK is making the hard sell that this move will reduce its pollution. On average, this is true, but unquestionably it will make our inversion pollution worse. Despite partial conversion to natural gas, the expansion of mining operations, including expanded crusher and tailings impoundments, an additional plan to re-mine those tailings, and a new molybdenum plant, all add up to more pollution.
RTK's enormous environmental and public health footprint must be viewed in its totality, not piecemeal, as the company would prefer. The same must be said about its economic impact. Although RTK pays substantial taxes and wages, its contribution to disease, health care costs and the suppression of "cleaner" economic development all take money out of your wallet.
Studies of mining operations in other parts of the country, looking at both sides of the equation, suggest that RTK, overall, is actually an economic liability.
The Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club joined Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, Utah Moms for Clean Air and WildEarth Guardians as plaintiffs in suing RTK for violating the federal Clean Air Act. The reason is very simple. The increased mining activity that was green-lighted by the Division of Air Quality would increase RTK's overall emissions of nitrogen oxides by 54 percent and its particulate emissions by 66 percent. That's according to the company's own documents.
This violates the Clean Air Act, a critical firewall in protecting the health of Utah citizens from air pollution and corporate abuse. Our intent going forward is to hold RTK accountable to the law.
Marion Klaus is chair of the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club and lives in Park City; Dan Mayhew is vice-chair of the Utah chapter and its conservation chair. He lives in Salt Lake City.