While most people are familiar with the Great Wall, Bingham Canyon Mine is virtually unknown. More than 2.5 miles wide and 4,000 feet deep -- it's so vast, it produces its own weather patterns -- the mine is open to visitors from April through October.
I recently traveled there and discovered the surreal splendor of this mine, which, in a bizarre way, rivals Utah's natural wonders. The hills here hold the richest copper deposit in the world, so far yielding more than 17.5 million tons over the past century. Mine operations are planned through 2018 to make the pit wider and deeper; after open-pit mining ceases, underground mining is expected to commence. On the
Food and BoardFor tourists, a trip to Bingham Canyon Mine is, by necessity, a day trip from Salt Lake City or a stopover en route to another place, such as Zion National Park near Cedar City, Utah. There are few services near the mine. For accommodations in downtown Salt Lake City, try the luxury
A Rich HistoryThe Bingham Canyon Mine Visitor Center is located in the middle of the pit, at 6,200 feet above sea level; the highest peaks above soar to 9,000 feet. Since 1906, miners have been carving the canyon into the shape of a funnel, laced with a spiral of terraced roads. Before getting enticed by the vistas, though, do watch the 16-minute film in the visitor center, which details the canyon's geology, the mine's history and current operations. Mining began at Bingham Canyon in 1863, after gold was discovered there. Copper mining followed years later, to meet new demand for copper wiring for electricity. But extracting this copper would prove to be a mammoth task. The ore here is of an extremely low grade, averaging a purity of less than 0.6%, and deposited throughout the entire mountain.
What Lies BeneathSteve Poulson, a retired stockbroker, praised Kennecott for cleaning up its operations. For decades, the concentrating, smelting and refining processes emitted a nonstop cloud that blew southward along the mountain range, and "it was really ugly," he said. Unlike Salt Lake Valley, I couldn't see any smog hovering above Bingham Canyon. The plume Poulson used to see along the mountain ridge was mainly sulfur dioxide, the primary byproduct of the copper-smelting process. Kennecott says its new smelting plant, opened in 1995 (reportedly at a cost of $880 million), is the cleanest smelter in the world, capturing 99.9% of the emitted sulfur dioxide, a noxious gas, which is then used to generate power for plant operations or converted to sulfuric acid for agricultural uses. Further, in the pit itself, trucks spray a million gallons of water a day on mining sites and dirt roads to reduce dust; company vehicles run on biodiesel fuels; and Kennecott's electricity plant operates with low-sulfur coal and natural gas. But despite Kennecott's efforts, a century of smelting and refining copper ore has left an ugly legacy. Areas around the Bingham Canyon Mine are on a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency list of the nation's most polluted sites, as they contain dangerously high levels of lead, arsenic and selenium. In recent years, however, Kennecott has attempted to "reclaim" thousands of acres by replacing polluted soils with clean topsoil and sowing thousands of native plants, such as sage, scrub oak, aspens and wildflowers. The southern waste area has become home to wild turkeys, owls, coyotes and other wildlife. North of the Bingham Canyon Mine, Kennecott has expanded an area to safely store polluted rock.
|Bingham Canyon Mine|
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