"Restoration is our obligation to future generations."
—Carolyn Raffensperger, Principles of Perpetual Care
Most of us alive today will witness the final days of the deepest open pit copper mine in the world.
The world, in fact, only has around 25 years left of recoverable copper.
Kennecott Copper Mine is currently working to prolong its 2019 end-date by expanding. The expansion will increase production 32 percent. However, the expansion will only extend the mine’s life to 2029 .
Kennecott has a century-long legacy here. The Salt Lake Community views this legacy with mixed regard. For some, continued production for another 15 years is critical for economic security, or they take pride in Kennecott’s mining legacy. For others, the environmental impact of the mine and accruing public health costs from past and continued operations far outweigh the benefits to the local economy.
Indeed, copper is central to our ‘modern way of life’, from power stations to electronics, and we have not yet found a suitable substitute for major use. But our dependence on copper is too often used to make the case that discontinuing operations would devastate the local economy and U.S. copper supply, outweighing any environmental or public health impacts.
What is not weighed heavily enough in the current debate is that the mine will close in the next generation or two, and the implications of that timeline.
Production today will require future time and resources to restore the landscape. According to Kennecott’s 2008 remediation report, there are several ongoing activities to clean up 100 years of accumulated impacts. Cleanup that began in the 1990s will continue for another several decades.
Future generations will not receive the same kind of economic benefit from the mine but will be liable for its cleanup. In this way we pass on our debt to them. We therefore have a responsibility to include future generations’ rights to an economically sustainable and healthy environment in our debates and our decisions.
We need to ask questions like: What will happen to the pit? How long will it take to fully restore the landscape and monitor the aging infrastructure? What is the plan for transitioning our economy? Who will pay? Who decides?
Kennecott’s planned community, Daybreak, is one proposed model for improving air quality along the Wasatch front. This type of investment is a step towards sustainable development and post-mining land use. But the development does not address long-term questions about fully reintegrating the open pit back into the surrounding natural and human environment, or how long that process will take.
As copper and other major resources are used up, society will have to evolve, and future generations will experience a new ‘modern life’ that relies only on recycled copper, and eventually no copper at all. When we prioritize the next 10-15 years of economic business-as-usual, we blind ourselves to these truths and do so at the expense, both in dollars and in health, of our grandchildren.
Foresight affords us the opportunity to establish an unprecedented model for mine remediation. The pit can be transformed into something that, like its past self, provides local jobs and helps sustain the local economy, but no longer threatens the health of the landscape and community.
It’s easy to view the idea that we are all eventually ancestors like we do with death; an abstraction, but one we know will happen. And so we bequeath ourselves through what we leave behind; aspects of ourselves we wish to be remember by.
So I ask again: When the copper is gone, and the world has moved on, what will we have passed on? How will we be remembered?
Kaitlin Butler is a research assistant for the Consortium for Climate Risk in the Urban Northeast and program coordinator for the Women’s Congress for Future Generations.
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