Nodding to the past, looking to the future. Utah’s Kennecott again mining copper underground

Sep 28, 2022, 6:09 AM | Updated: Nov 18, 2022, 11:15 pm
(Chopper 5/KSL TV)...
(Chopper 5/KSL TV)
(Chopper 5/KSL TV)

BINGHAM CANYON, Utah — The Kennecott Copper Mine has been a fixture of the Salt Lake Valley for over 100 years and on Tuesday, the mine announced that it will be moving mining operations underground in its next step to extract copper.

The mine — which began operations in 1906 — started as an underground copper mine before ceasing with that method and becoming iconic for its claim as the largest man-made excavation and deepest open-pit mine in the world.

“We’re innovating and we’re closer to writing the next chapter within Kennecott’s history,” said Nate Foster, interim managing director at Rio Tinto Kennecott.

Rio Tinto will be investing $55 million in development capital in a section of its underground copper deposit known as the lower commercial skarns.

“This has the potential to deliver over 30,000 tons of high-quality copper over the next five years,” Foster said.

That amount of copper is enough to provide electricity to over 1.2 million U.S. homes.

Foster also noted that nearly 100% of the materials created and produced at Kennecott stay within North America.

The newest mining endeavor at Kennecott is unique in the sense that it will be using electric vehicle technology on a trial basis to determine the feasibility of using electric vehicles in mining operations.

To do so, Kennecott is partnering with Sandvik, a mining technology company that produces electric mining equipment.

“These vehicles are safer, cleaner, more efficient and less noisy than traditional vehicles used underground,” Foster said.

Foster said this could “set the tone” for Rio Tinto’s future mining projects not just in the Beehive State, but across the globe.

Utah Lt. Governor Deidre Henderson was on hand for Tuesday’s announcement and said that she and Gov. Spencer Cox are “committed to boosting modern-day mining to build infrastructure and technology for the next generation.”

She added that by 2040, the energy sector’s demand for minerals could grow by six times, while the demand for minerals that power electric vehicle batteries could grow by 40 times.

“Rio Tinto Kennecott’s claims hold around 20 million tons of developable mineral resources (and) a successful trial could expand this technology throughout Rio Tinto’s global operations,” Henderson said. “Investments in mining are investments in Utah. They’re investments in Utahns. They’re investments in America.”

Rio Tinto Kennecott directly employs over 2,000 people while indirectly contributing to thousands more jobs throughout the state.

Additionally, the move to underground mining will allow Kennecott to continue mining from the Bingham Copper Mine without increasing the mine’s footprint.

Though it won’t increase the visible size of the mine, underground mining does carry some environmental concerns — specifically related to water, said Carl Fisher, executive director of the environmental group Save Our Canyons.

Fisher said that subterranean water systems could be impacted.

“Not a lot is known about where these water systems go, but sometimes manifest themselves as springs. I suspect folks that live in the vicinity of Kennecott could see their wells dry up as underground mining can totally alter the flow of water, this could also compound aquifers that rest underneath the Salt Lake (and possibly even the Tooele) Valley,” Fisher said in an email.

He also said that underground mining causes dust emissions, something that is “killing” the snowpack.

“Dust on snow leads to a faster rate of melt and faster evapotranspiration. This means our snowpack, which in the greater Salt Lake region is our water reservoir, isn’t lasting as long through the summer months as it used to be and the evapotranspiration in many instances means less water in the Great Salt Lake watershed,” Fisher said.

Joe Thomas, assistant director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, said that the department’s top concern is improving air quality — something he said Kennecott can help with.

“For the last few years, many of the reductions in emissions in the Wasatch Front came from industry,” Thomas said.

From 1995, half of the pollution in the area was reduced by industry initiatives in Utah, Thomas said.

He said that while the state has been enjoying a reduction in its emissions output, the rapidly growing nature of the state will eventually lead to an increase in emissions.

“Light-duty, heavy-duty vehicles (and) off-road equipment is particularly a big source of pollution,” Thomas said. “We know that industry innovation can make a significant positive impact in our air quality and environment. By making this investment in modern technology to pilot zero-emissions mining equipment in the operation, Rio Tinto Kennecott is raising the bar, setting new standards for industry across the state.”

Thomas said that the electrification of vehicles and mining equipment is an exciting time for his department — a position echoed by Foster.

“It’s an exciting day for many reasons. We are confident these innovations will go down as a game-changer in the long and rich history here at Kennecott,” Foster said.

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Nodding to the past, looking to the future. Utah’s Kennecott again mining copper underground