Facts of the Matter


Copper mine clashes with
environmental concerns

I just returned from a visit to the worlds' first and largest open pit mine, the Brigham Canyon copper mine outside Salt Lake City. It is an awesome sight, huge beyond imagination. It reminded me of our dependence on the earth and the complementary and contrary aspects of environmental impact and resource usage.

The mine, listed on the National Register of Historic Sites, is nearly 4,000 feet deep and 2 1/2 miles across. Called the richest hole in the world, it has produced more than 17 million tons of copper, along with significant amounts of gold, silver and molybdenum.

Today it produces more than 320,000 tons of copper yearly. Since it opened in 1906, more than 6 billion tons of material have been removed, with the daily amount today nearly half a million tons.

When it opened in 1906, traditional miners laughed. The grade of ore is low, and it was thought that such a low concentration could not be profitable since it takes a ton of ore to produce 12 pounds of copper. How wrong they were! The total wealth of metals extracted from the mine now exceeds the combined totals of the California and Klondike gold rushes and the Comstock Lode (a rich silver mine in Nevada).

Mining is a dirty industry by its nature, but the Kennecot Copper Co. has spent millions of dollars to reduce the environmental impact of the mine, which is the cleanest open-pit operation in the world. The refinery north of the mine is also the cleanest in the world, recovering 99.9 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions and converting them to sulfuric acid, itself a commercial product.

Unlike many ore deposits, the Kennecot ores are not concentrated in veins. The low concentration of metal in the rock makes this the only feasible method of extracting it. The company that owns the mine developed clean technology that has reduced the costs of mining and has allowed it to compete as one of the world's lowest-cost copper producers.

Despite the vast wealth that the mine contributes to the local economy, its importance as a domestic resource and its relatively clean operation, the mine is not popular among all residents. There are complaints that it is an ugly scar and that it damages the environment.

The mine is easily seen from the Wasatch front, twenty miles across the valley.

While no one wants a big ugly hole in the ground, we don't hesitate to use electricity carried by copper wires, coins with copper cores or the copper in virtually every appliance, electronic device, automobile, airplane, electric motor, computer and almost every other industrial product. Society requires resources, and metals are one of the earliest to be exploited and most basic of all resources. Those metals have to come from somewhere.

As population growth has expanded Salt Lake City, it has also increased the demand for copper. At first the mine was a small hole, far from where people lived and worked; now the suburbs are encroaching on the mine, and people don't want dirty industries in their back yards. Unlike steel and other "dirty" industries, a mine cannot be moved to a developing country.

As with most environmental problems, there are too many people with a voracious and ever-increasing appetite for material and energy resources, but population centers are overlapping geologic deposits such as those at the Brigham Canyon mine. Do we stop extracting and processing earth materials? Maybe, but who among us will give up their labor-saving and convenient appliances, electric lights, automobiles, electronic and communication devices? Then again, we must develop domestic resources in strategic metals at the very least.

The friction between the environment and resource usage will not end. It will get worse until we develop a sustainable mind-set and practice. There will always be an environmental price tag for every resource used, as the world gets smaller with every step of technological progress.

We could all be a little smarter, no? Richard Brill picks up
where your high school science teacher left off. He is a professor of science
at Honolulu Community College, where he teaches earth and physical
science and investigates life and the universe.
He can be contacted by e-mail at

E-mail to Business Editor

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]
© 2002 Honolulu Star-Bulletin --