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Kennecott landslide puts 45 miners out of work

BINGHAM CANYON — Tyler Thompson is among the first miners to feel the financial pinch of a massive landslide that crippled Kennecott Utah Copper earlier this month.

Mining construction contractor Cementation USA laid off the young husband and father and about 45 others on Friday, the first of what could be many workers to lose their jobs at the Bingham Canyon Mine.

"I gotta move out of my house. I can't afford to live there anymore. I gotta sell vehicles. I gotta really liquidate," Thompson, 28, said. "I'm real scared to see what next month brings. Right now, in the industry there's not a lot of open positions in the area."

Kennecott Utah Copper hired Cementation in fall 2011 to dig tunnels as part of an expansion project to extend the life of the mine. Thompson, of Eagle Mountain, worked as an underground miner for a year and was on the mechanical maintenance crew when he was let go.

"It affected us pretty dramatically," said Willie Finch, Cementation human resources director. "What we were doing is literally buried."

Cementation, whose U.S. headquarters are in Sandy, had about 70 workers at Bingham Canyon. A skeleton crew of mostly supervisors remains on the job.

Thompson, who grew up in Nephi, said his weekly unemployment payment amounts to what he made at the mine in a day. He and his wife were looking for another home to rent Monday.

"It's going to be real tight," said the father of a 3-year-old daughter whom he'd planned to take to Disneyland this year.

An enormous wall of dirt thundered down the northeast section of the open-pit mine on April 10. No workers were injured, but roads, buildings and heavy machinery, including large shovels and haul trucks, were damaged.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration has now granted Kennecott limited access to the mine, including offices and the lower pit, Kyle Bennett, Rio Tinto's Kennecott Utah Copper spokesman, said Monday.

The company's geotechnical experts plan to deploy remote controlled equipment to assess the landslide in the lower portion of the mine in the next day or two, Bennett said.

Contractors like Cementation supplement Kennecott's workforce and do special projects. Because the mine is not operating at full capacity, Kennecott has pulled back some of that work, he said.

"While we're not directly involved in making staffing decisions for those contractors, we do understand how a slowdown for us impacts them and impacts their people," Bennett said. "They're really hard decisions, but that's where we are today."

Last week, Kennecott asked mine workers to take vacation or unpaid time off, and has now extended it companywide, totaling 2,100 employees, he said. Mining has not resumed at Bingham Canyon, but trucks are hauling ore from its stockpile for processing.

Cementation was digging two large tunnels into the mountainside — one 8,000 feet long to explore for new ore deposits and connect to a mine shaft, and another 10,000 feet long to drain underground water.

Thompson said the area where he worked is now covered with 500 to 700 feet of rock and dirt. Crews were pulled out of the mine on a "safety stand-down" two days prior to the landslide, which he said rumbled down in six seconds. Kennecott was tracking the ground movement for months before the slide.

"I didn't anticipate the slide being this big. I thought the slide was going to happen and we'd be back to work in a couple of days. When it really did happen, I was just sick to my stomach," he said.

The dirt buried all of Cementation's drilling equipment, trucks and mechanical shop, including veteran mechanics' personal tools.

"Those tools were a part of them," Thompson said. "You work with your tools for 40 years and have so much involved, it was real hard for those guys. … Those tools are their livelihood."

Thompson said it was difficult to see Cementation's hard work ruined in a matter of seconds.

"The last two years, these guys gave their blood, sweat and tears for this project," he said.

Cementation, Thompson said, is going the extra mile to help workers transfer to other project sites.

"The president cares about as much about me as a miner as he does the vice president or anybody else high up in the organization," he said.

Whether the landslide puts more people out of work remains to be seen.

Scott Mullins, president of United Steel Workers local No. 392, said he's not aware of any other pending layoffs.

"Until we get access to the bottom of the mine, everything would be speculation on our part," he said.


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