GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. -- Picture the headline: "Utah the nation's top toxic polluter."
Sometime next year, the Environmental Protection Agency will release a report, called the Toxic Release Inventory, that will have Utah, Arizona and Nevada jockeying for position as states releasing the most toxic substances into the environment. And that could have a devastating effect on Western tourism."Somebody somewhere wanted to paint a picture of Utah as a major polluter," Gov. Mike Leavitt said. "The problem is, the people interpreting the EPA report will use the word pollution, and in reality it is not pollution."
Leavitt and other Western governors attending the annual Western Governors Association meetings in Grand Teton National Park are upset about new EPA reporting requirements the governors believe will create a public relations nightmare for Western states, as well as for mining companies such as Kennecott.
At the request of mining interests that are attending the meetings in force, the Western governors were set Tuesday to pass a resolution decrying the unintended economic consequences of the report and urging EPA to release the data in the proper context so as not to alarm the public.
All of this hand-wringing is over rule changes by the EPA as to what certain companies must report about the materials they release into the environment. The law, called the Community Right-to-Know Act, was designed to force companies to make public the amount of chemical toxins released into the "air and water."
The EPA, however, has now implemented changes that require seven other types of industries to report toxic substances released to the land. Utah industries that will be affected include coal-fired power plants, coal mines and Kennecott's copper mine.
Louie Cononelos, director of governmental and public affairs for Kennecott and chairman of the Utah Mining Association, said the new rules go far beyond the original intent of the law, which was to let communities know of the dangerous substances in their own back yards.
Now, every rock moved by mining companies becomes a toxic substance, even though it contains all the same natural minerals it had when it was lodged inside a mountain or in the ground, Cononelos said.
"There's no increased risk to public health; the environment is not threatened," he said. "We believe there is absolutely no value to that information, and the only thing it accomplishes is to draw attention to and create a false impression of mining in the West."
Leavitt agreed, noting all of the "toxic" materials at Kennecott occur naturally, but because they were moved during a mining process the EPA says they must be reported as toxic.
"It makes me wonder if a volcano blows its top, will the EPA require Mother Nature to report the release of toxic substances?" he asked.
Leavitt, like others in state government, is concerned about the public perception of a report that lists Utah as one of the nation's top polluters when the state has "a good record as an area that values environmental consciousness."
There is also concern that groups will distort the information in the report to try to close down mining companies.
Cononelos said Kennecott moves about 450,000 tons of rock every day, of which 290,000 tons is waste material that is never processed because the mineral content is too low (ore that is processed is already reported under the toxic inventory).
According to Cononelos, every ton of waste rock contains three or four pounds of copper, which by EPA definition is a toxic substance. Then add in two or three ounces of lead, zinc and arsenic, also toxic substances, and then calculate how much that would be for 290,000 tons of waste rock produced every day 365 days a year.
The governors' resolution does not call on EPA to revoke the rules but rather to release the report within the proper context. Felicia Marcus, regional administrator for the EPA, said the agency is already planning to develop materials to educate the public about what the numbers mean and what the public health risks are.
"We are dealing with new information from a new industry sector (required to report to EPA), and that kind of information needs proper context," she said. "In that sense, we agree with the governors' resolution. People need to understand what the numbers mean."
William Sanders, director of the EPA's Office of Pollution, Prevention and Toxics in Washington, D.C., said the rules were changed to include waste rock "because it contains many of the same toxic chemicals that are in the ore being mined. These toxic chemicals also may be leached from the waste rock and travel through the environment."
The EPA maintains the issue of whether mining companies should report the toxic materials is not nearly as clear-cut as the companies would have the public believe. When rocks and ore are removed from a hillside, it makes it easier for water to leach through the materials, taking toxic metals and chemicals with it.
The mining industry is planning a massive public relations campaign of its own to educate the public about the effects of the new EPA rules.