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State attorneys told a federal judge Monday that Kennecott's $12 million offer is fair compensation for 90 years of damage to area groundwater.

The Salt Lake County Water Conservancy District, on the other hand, has asked the judge to block the settlement and contends that a plume of contaminated underground water spreading from Bingham Canyon mining operations has caused approximately $200 million damage.Attorneys for Utah, Kennecott and the Salt Lake County Water Conservancy District argued before U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Greene most of Monday over whether the $12 million settlement was fair to the public.

Greene will hear evidence from Kennecott, the state and the water district this week.

Assistant Utah Attorney General Fred Nelson said nature was cleaning up the damaged groundwater and that over the next 100 to 200 years the water should reach safe drinking levels.

Pumping the water out of the ground and trying to clean it would leave waste materials that would have to be treated and disposed of, he said. Even then, hundreds of years would pass before the water would be completely safe.

Kennecott and the state cut off several sources of the contamination in an effort to solve the groundwater contamination problem, Nelson said.

Kennecott has stopped using evaporation ponds in the Bingham Canyon area known to leach hazardous metals and sulfates into the ground. The company also re-lined the small Bingham reservoir to prevent leaching and lowered the level of the large Bingham reservoir.

An investigation into groundwater contamination began in 1983 after floodwaters washed out evaporation ponds near the Bingham Canyon mining operations. State engineers worked until 1988 to assess damage to area groundwater. The state sued Kennecott in 1986 and has since negotiated the proposed $12 million settlement, Nelson said.

Seventy new wells were drilled and water samples were taken from 200 wells altogether to determine the extent of the groundwater damage.

The water is severely damaged, Nelson acknowledged. It contains minerals at levels hazardous to human health. Metals in the water can damage the nervous and circulatory system as well as kidneys, he said. Salts in the water produce a laxative effect, he said.

However, evidence suggests that the properties in the area's soil are neutralizing the contaminated water as years pass, allowing metals to precipitate out of the soil.

However, the sulfate level in the water still remains above safe levels for drinking.

The water district's position is that the $12 million proposed settlement will not come close to covering the costs of replacing water supplies that are or will be contaminated by the spreading Kennecott plume.