Opinion: I’ve seen the dangers of open-pit copper mining, both in Utah and abroad

The view of the inversion outside my window feels like a crystal ball.

I am a tropical ecologist by training. While Salt Lake City is my home now, I lived most of my 20s in a tiny town in Panama, whose population primarily comprised of canal workers and research scientists working for the renowned Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Every rainy season as a graduate student, I came here to study red-eyed treefrogs and eat my weight in wild mangoes.

I loved every astonishing second of living en la jungla, where everything overflowed with life. Geckos commonly cackled at me from the corners of my living room. Sloths sometimes needed help crossing the street and titi monkeys peed on me on my way to work. I fell asleep nightly to thundering túngara frog lullabies, sporadically drowned out by my fire alarm, which couldn’t tell the difference between smoke and the spiders cozily nesting within. For two Mondays in a row, a vibrant male motmot flew into our laboratory and started knocking over equipment. I also quickly learned to always check my boots before slipping them on; it took a single surprise scorpion to really cement that habit.

These hazards I had learned to expect. But a massive, colonialist mining project in the center of the biological corridor was never on my BINGO card.

The Canadian company First Quantum Minerals wants to expand activities in Cobre Panama, an open-pit copper mine deep in the Panamanian rainforest that covers an area roughly three times the size of Manhattan. Reportedly, the Cobre Panama project has already led to the unauthorized deforestation of huge swaths of the rainforest and discharge of toxic waste into nearby ravines, poisoning drinking water and aggravating local climate change.

Despite ongoing protests, Panama’s president signed the contract with First Quantum Oct. 20, and there is a real sense of betrayal in the community. The country is shut down, roads are blocked, and schools are closed. Protests nation-wide are continuing, yet there has been little media coverage, neither local nor international, and even less progress to stop this destruction from happening. For me, I am especially devastated for my friends back in the little canal town where I used to live because I have seen first-hand what open-pit copper mining and poor environmental management can do to a community.

These days, I work as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Utah, less than 30 miles directly northwest of the Kennecott Copper Mine, touted to be the largest man-made excavation on Earth and allegedly one of the few human-made structures visible from space. A lot of my research lately has centered around our neighboring Great Salt Lake – namely, what happens to the lake’s benthic communities as it dries, what contaminants are present in the sediments, and where those may have originated from. We’ve recently discovered in our lab that the sites closest to the piles of waste rock (“tailings piles”) from the Kennecott Utah Copper Mine are drastically elevated in some toxic metals.

Although the company has crafted a convincing public image as “environmental steward,” it consistently ranks among the highest polluters by the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory. In 2011, the company submitted its notice of intent to redesign its tailings impoundment facility to store an additional 1.2 billion tons of waste rock; notably, the report only accounts for ways to mitigate windblown dust and fails to mention leaching of toxins. Just this year, the company has quietly filed yet another notice of intent to provide an additional 100 million tons of tailings storage that cannot be met using existing storage capacity. According to the same notice of intent, the company intends to extend the life of the open pit mine until 2038, so we can expect these threats to our air and our health to accumulate in the years to come.

Today, many Panamanians are relentlessly fighting the proposed open-pit copper mine. They dispute its necessity for their economy and fear its impact on the environment. The mass unrest over the project seems to be taking a toll on decision-makers, as First Quantum shares plunge and the president has called for a referendum on the project, which we’re learning may or may not be possible.

I am all too familiar with this feeling of unrest in the face of environmental uncertainty. It has been decades since the start of this story in Salt Lake City, and we are still drowning in the resulting environmental catastrophe. I often listen to the news about my dreamy former home and think that the view of the inversion outside my window feels like a crystal ball, a clear view of what could happen if we let copper mining companies continue to dig up the land and leave metal toxins in their wake.

Julie Jung

Julie Jung, Ph.D., is a freelance science writer and postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Utah studying developmental plasticity and extremophile biology.

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