Opinion: By fast-tracking mining operations, Utah puts health at risk

Utah must strike a balance between mining for renewable energy, and protecting the health of its people.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Kilgore gravel quarry on Monday, February 27, 2023. The quarry has operated for more than a century near the mouth of Parleys Canyon.

Utah is on the brink of a transformative opportunity to expand its renewable energy capacity, clean up its air and climate and enhance its overall quality of life. As a state, we have an abundance of renewable energy potential, including solar, wind and geothermal resources, that can be paired with storage technologies like batteries to provide adequate, affordable, reliable and sustainable energy to power our growth.

With a projected $5.3 billion in direct and indirect benefits from renewable energy projects between 2007 and 2023, Utah has the potential to serve as a model for renewable energy buildout in a conservative state.

But the elephant in the room remains: mining. The International Energy Agency forecasts a fourfold increase in mineral demand by 2040 as the world tries to meet essential climate targets. While the Governor’s 2022 Energy Plan emphasizes support for a “clean energy future through … responsible mining,” legislative proposals in the Utah State Legislature seek to incentivize mining expansion while weakening protections for public health and the environment, and reducing opportunities for public comment.

The current legislative landscape reveals a clear intent to boost mining production across the board, from open-pit gravel mines in Parleys Canyon to lithium brine operations in arid southeastern Utah. And it’s true — the demand for minerals like copper, nickel, lithium and cobalt, critical components of electric vehicles and photovoltaic cells, is set to surge as we embrace renewable energy technologies. Innovations in recycling, efficiency, resource recovery and transportation can reduce the need for new materials. But it’s likely that mining will play a role, especially in the early years of this transition.

However, bypassing protective processes in favor of fast-tracking projects, whether at the state or federal level, is a recipe for disaster. Current legislation lacks sufficient safeguards for public health and communities, while privileging the interests of national and international mining companies above the rights of people. Blindly expanding mining, reducing public input and hampering environmental review would have unintended and broad-reaching consequences for our state.

Mining has a mixed legacy, marked by environmental pollution and social harm. Historically, mining companies have left behind a trail of toxic pollution that poses threats to human health, ecology and water quality. Antiquated laws like the General Mining Law of 1872 have incentivized irresponsible practices, burdening taxpayers with cleanup costs adding up to billions of dollars. A 2020 Deseret News investigation revealed a substantial threat to drinking water and habitat from legacy mines on the Wasatch Front, and a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report from the same year identified more than 240,000 abandoned hardrock mines in 13 Western states — likely a vast underestimate. On the Navajo Nation alone, communities have suffered contamination from over 500 abandoned uranium mines for over half a century.

When and where mining companies have operated more responsibly, it is due largely to the existence of a strong system of regulation, enforcement and consumer demand. In 2022, the Top 40 mining companies in the world had a total group revenue of US $711 billion. Demand is high, prices are high and profits are even higher. These companies can afford to do better by people and by places — indeed they must.

What it takes, though, is clear, enforceable legislation that prioritizes public health, public welfare and community engagement, especially from impacted communities. Utah must strike a balance between mining for renewable energy, and protecting the health of its people. We can do this before plunging into new projects, but it is urgent that we act now.

Our lawmakers here in Utah have a unique opportunity to lead the country. By modernizing regulatory frameworks, embracing mining certification, regulating remining, formalizing community consultation and implementing robust environmental safeguards, they can ensure that Utah’s renewable energy goals are achieved without compromising the health and well-being of our residents. Furthermore, strategies such as mine mitigation, demand reduction, public transit, recycling and waste recovery should be integral to our transition to clean energy.

It’s time for lawmakers to act to ensure a positive, accountable business environment in Utah through clear guidelines and the directive that companies wanting to do business in Utah must do right by our people.

HEAL Utah advocates for an energy transition that learns from the mistakes of the past and prioritizes the health and safety of communities. In the face of climate change and crises like the drying of the Great Salt Lake, it is more critical than ever to protect our water sources. Water is ever more scarce, and ever more precious in our warming world. We cannot afford to compromise its quality. That’s yet one more reason why we should be asking for more, not fewer protections. By acting decisively and responsibly, Utah can pave the way for a sustainable future that benefits both its citizens and the environment.

Lexi Tuddenham

Lexi Tuddenham is the executive director of HEAL Utah.

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