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County may clean and then tap water

Underground resource polluted by mining work

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If Salt Lake County water officials have their way, underground water now unfit to drink will soon be cleaned and sent pouring through kitchen faucets and into bathtubs.

A team of state and federal regulators, water brokers and Kennecott officials unveiled a plan Wednesday to clean up 171,000 acre-feet of underground water contaminated with acids, sulfates and toxic metals — all byproducts of more than a century of mining in the Oquirrh Mountains.

It took a lot of cooperation to agree on the plan, said Eva Hoffman, the Environmental Protection Agency's project manager. "The initial discussions weren't that pleasant."

Her primary interest was "to get that acid out of the ground," Hoffman said. Water officials, however, insisted, "We don't throw water away in Utah."

The Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District is looking at the underground water with covetous eyes. It sees it as a major source of untapped water that could be used to quench the thirst of a population quickly outstripping current supplies.

But first the water has to be cleaned, and that is going to cost around $80 million, said Jon Callender, manager of strategic resources for Kennecott.

About $50 million of that will come from a settlement paid by Kennecott, plus accrued interest, as part of terms of the Natural Resource Damage Claim settlement award to the state.

The conservancy district is building a plant in West Jordan to treat the contaminated water, which now rests underground in an aquifer stretching from the Oquirrh Mountains on the west to Riverton, West Jordan and South Jordan on the east.

The district, in turn, will be able to provide an additional 8,000 acre-feet of water each year for the next 50 years.

An acre-foot is the approximate amount of water used annually by a family of four.

Kennecott will build another treatment facility near the mouth of Bingham Canyon. That's in addition to $300 million the company has already spent to remedy the environmental problems caused by its mining operations in southwest Salt Lake County.

Those solutions include preventing contaminated water from ever reaching the aquifer through a series of cut-off walls, or dams, that are used as barricades.

"The last decade we've really got our act together to assure contamination won't go on any further," Callender said.

The measures are costly, but, "it's far cheaper to prevent contamination," Hoffman said.

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality, the EPA and Kennecott have been working on the project for 10 years.

"Good partners make good projects," Callender said. "Kennecott created the problem, but this problem would never have been solved without the partnership with these agencies."

Richard Bay, assistant general manager of the water conservancy district, said it has joined the partnership because of the vast reserves of potentially usable water. And with Kennecott picking up most of the tab for cleaning it up, that makes it affordable to the district's customers.

In fact, the district will be purchasing the water for slightly less than it would have if the water had never been contaminated, Bay said.

The public can comment on the plan at a 7 p.m. hearing Aug. 9 at the West Jordan City Hall, 8000 S. Redwood Road.

E-mail: donna@desnews.com