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What a $1.5 billion investment means for Utah, Kennecott and U.S. mining

Rio Tinto says expansion will extend operations to 2032

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The view from the upper viewing area at Rio Tinto’s Kennecott Copper as employees give a tour of the new visitors area at the Bingham Canyon Mine on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018. The mine’s visitor sites will reopen to the public in early 2019.

COPPERTON — An attractive copper market fueled by the metal’s use in electric vehicles and renewable power technologies is stoking a $1.5 billion investment by Rio Tinto to expand mining operations at Kennecott over the next six years, extending the life of the mine on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for more than a decade.

“This is an attractive, high-value and low-risk investment that will ensure Kennecott produces copper and other critical materials to at least 2032,” said Rio Tinto CEO Jean-Sébastien Jacques, adding that mine closures impacting supply are also a key factor in the expansion.

“Kennecott is uniquely positioned to meet strong demand in the United States and delivers almost 20% of the country’s copper production,” he said in a news release. “North American manufacturers have relied on high-quality products from Kennecott for the past century and this investment means it will continue to be a source of essential materials into the next decade.”

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, in a prepared statement, praised the Tuesday announcement.

“This significant investment will continue to fuel economic growth and employment for many years. I am grateful to Rio Tinto for continuing to invest in Utah,” he said. “They have shown commitment to business in our state, and we are grateful to them for being upstanding corporate citizens in our community.”

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, also reacted to the news on social media.

“Not only does this announcement mean security for thousands of jobs and continued economic growth, but it also means minerals critical to our national defense can be extracted within our state,” he said on Twitter.

The investment will extend strip-waste rock mining and support additional infrastructure development in the second phase of what’s called the the South Wall Pushback project so mining can continue into a new area of the ore body. It will result in delivering close to 1 million metric tons of refined copper between 2026 and 2032.

With this project, Rio Tinto has invested more than $5 billion in modernization, environmental stewardship and mine-life extension initiatives since it acquired Kennecott in 1989, according to a release by the company.

The first phase of the project is expected to be completed in 2021.

In addition to copper, Kennecott is one of the largest producers of gold, silver and molybdenum in North America, and is a potential source of critical minerals such as rhenium and tellurium. 

The complex operates on Rio Tinto’s privately owned land of 95,000 acres and hosts one of the most advanced copper and precious metals smelters in the world. It processes concentrate from Kennecott and third parties, and is one of only three smelters in the United States. 

That smelter has produced 8,000 tons of recycled copper since 2008. The mine itself is three-quarters of a mile deep and 1 34 miles across.

Kennecott employs 1,900 people and indirectly supports another 11,000 workers.