June 27, 2010


Today I'm going to try to provide you with a striking illustration of scale.

After my morning practice session, I decided to pay a visit to the Kennecott Copper Mine: one of the Salt Lake Valley's most visible features and, in fact, the world's largest man-made excavation. This huge open-pit mine is so deep that if you stacked two Sears Towers (actually, I think it's called the Willis Tower now...the Big Willy...yikes!) one on top of the other, they would still not reach out of the mine. Seen from across the Salt Lake Valley its immensity is obvious...

...just as a reference, what is visible of the mine in this photo stretches over 9 miles.

Having grown up daily seeing this colorful mass of dune-like mounds emerging from the eastern flanks of the Oquirrh Mountains, I've become accustomed to its presence in the landscape and sometimes forget to notice how much ground it actually covers, but as I drove west across the valley this morning these massive piles of rubble loomed ever larger and I was overcome with the realization that all of it was once an entire mountain...

It's actually a little disturbing to think about--the mountain has been mercilessly bulldozed in order to get at deposits of metal that make up only 1% of the rocks they're found in. I realize that copper is hugely important and because of its conductivity and resistance to erosion is used in everything from cars, to computers, to plumbing, but still, our insatiable need for the stuff has left an awfully big scar. As I approached the security gate at the mine entrance, I started to worry that I'd leave after viewing the mine feeling horribly embarassed to be human.

I followed a winding road from the security gate to the visitor's center and was overcome by the colors, shapes, and scale of the operation around me. Unfortunately there were signs about every eighth of a mile warning visitors not to stop until they reached the visitor's center (which I'm sure must be for reasons of safety, but at the time I was thinking "So what is it they're trying to hide from my camera?" What a suspicious nut!).

At the visitor's center, you can go right up to the edge of the mine's main pit and watch as teensy little toy trucks loaded with rubble inch their way up the spiraling roads from the bottom of the hole and...let's do some zooming here...

...gradually grow to the size of a HOUSE!

I promise I'm not exaggerating! I know that in the picture above this sturdy little truck going back down the hill for a rocky refill still looks pretty dinky, but consider this: one of its tires (pictured here with a random tourist) is 12 feet 6 inches tall, weighs 10,183 pounds, is pressurized to 100 psi, and costs about $2500! Are you getting a sense of the size of things now? Kennecott has about 70 of these gigantic haulers working in the mine and each carries over 300 tons of material in a single trip. Over the years the Bingham Canyon mine (its official name) has produced more copper than any other mine in history...about 18.1 million tons. Wow!

As impressive as all of this seems to be, I still could not stop thinking about the environmental cost. When I've flown with Patrick, we've looked down on their tailings impound just south of the Great Salt Lake with disgust...from the air it's a completely vile and polluted mess. On the drive up, I could see where waste rubble has been dumped over the mine's steep slopes and has unabashedly covered up more and more mountainside (which in a way is actually oddly beautiful...if you don't think about it too much) and wondered what the place would look like in 20 years...would there even be an Oquirrh range left? As development spreads throughout the valley, will residents living in the mine's shadow have issues with contaminated drinking water?

Many of these questions were addressed in videos and displays inside the visitor's center. I was actually surprised to see demonstrations of work that had been done to restore damaged land and reintroduce native plants to areas of the mine no longer in use. The company has built water treatment plants to cleanse groundwater of its contamination so communities that tap in are not at risk. Even the disgusting tailings dump will (according to models in the center) gradually be returned to a "natural" living environment. Kennecott copper insists that they are the most sustainably operated and environmentally conscious mine in the world (everything is relative I guess) and they spend millions on research and invest in infrastructure and local maintenance to maintain this distinction.

Inside the theater there were also numerous plaques and displays that note Kennecott's ongoing contributions to the Salt Lake Community and various non-profit organizations to which they continually donate--The Museum of Natural History, Ballet West, Native American Organizations, and countless youth sports and education programs among them. I've gotta give kudos for that.

Sure, a lot of this is just the typical propaganda any company with such a dramatic impact would flaunt. The truth is usually a bit less rosy, but as I drove home I did notice how beautiful the landscape was immediately surrounding the mine. Pictures at the visitor's center showed this area had once been totally ravaged by negligence and waste. Looks like at least a few wildflowers are coming back...

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