The Rio Tinto/Kennecott copper mine is by far the largest industrial point source of air pollution in the Salt Lake valley, emitting 10 times the pollution of the next largest source, the Chevron oil refinery. Kennecott/Rio Tinto (RTK) has proposed a significant expansion of mining operations—expansion that would dramatically increase pollution levels. This expansion, given the green light by the Utah Division of Air Quality, will increase operations by 32%, which would result in an overall 73% expansion since 1994. This amounts to an increase in annual mining from 150 million to 260 million tons. The Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club challenges Kennecott to provide details backing their claim that mining an additional 110 million tons of rock per year will not result in increased air pollution.
The issue isn’t whether RTK is responsible for inversion pollution. The real issue is the huge levels of pollutants the mining puts into the air throughout the year, as well as the widespread heavy metal contamination of air, water, and soil caused by Kennecott’s past and present operations. Inversions or no inversions, the raw data clearly show that RTK is responsible for nearly one-third of the overall air pollution released in Salt Lake County.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, RTK is one of 1,600 “high priority” pollution violators in the United States. Kennecott 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 that every bit of exposure permanently harms the brains of infants and children. The combination of toxic and deadly heavy metals from RTK’s—lead, cadmium, arsenic, mercury—operations constantly descends upon Salt Lake County. And heavy metals do not degrade, so our exposure to them becomes cumulatively worse every year.
Drawing power from the Western grid, RTK turns off its coal-fired power plants during the winterand plans to convert the smallest three of its four coal burners to natural gas. But this plan comes with the proviso that RTK be allowed to run its 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 argues that this move will reduce its pollution. On average, this is true, but it will still make our inversion pollution worse in the long run. 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 not piecemeal, as the company would prefer, but in its totality. 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 Utah citizen’s wallets. 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.