Facebook Twitter

Nodding to the past, looking to the future. Utah’s Kennecott again mining copper underground

SHARE Nodding to the past, looking to the future. Utah’s Kennecott again mining copper underground
28951649.jpeg

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The Kennecott Copper Mine has been a fixture of the Salt Lake Valley for over 100 years and on Tuesday, the mine announced that it will be moving mining operations underground in its next step to extract copper.

The mine — which began operations in 1906 — started as an underground copper mine before ceasing with that method and becoming iconic for its claim as the largest man-made excavation and deepest open-pit mine in the world.

"We're innovating and we're closer to writing the next chapter within Kennecott's history," said Nate Foster, interim managing director at Rio Tinto Kennecott.

Rio Tinto will be investing $55 million in development capital in a section of its underground copper deposit known as the lower commercial skarns.

"This has the potential to deliver over 30,000 tons of high-quality copper over the next five years," Foster said.

That amount of copper is enough to provide electricity to over 1.2 million U.S. homes.

Foster also noted that nearly 100% of the materials created and produced at Kennecott stay within North America.

The newest mining endeavor at Kennecott is unique in the sense that it will be using electric vehicle technology on a trial basis to determine the feasibility of using electric vehicles in mining operations.

To do so, Kennecott is partnering with Sandvik, a mining technology company that produces electric mining equipment.

Rio Tinto employees walk past a battery-operated underground mining load haul dump loader at the Kennecott Copper Mine near Herriman on Tuesday. Rio Tinto announced it will resume underground mining at the mine after more than a century.

Rio Tinto employees walk past a battery-operated underground mining load haul dump loader at the Kennecott Copper Mine near Herriman on Tuesday. Rio Tinto announced it will resume underground mining at the mine after more than a century.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

"These vehicles are safer, cleaner, more efficient and less noisy than traditional vehicles used underground," Foster said.

Foster said this could "set the tone" for Rio Tinto's future mining projects not just in the Beehive State, but across the globe.

Utah Lt. Governor Deidre Henderson was on hand for Tuesday's announcement and said that she and Gov. Spencer Cox are "committed to boosting modern-day mining to build infrastructure and technology for the next generation."

She added that by 2040, the energy sector's demand for minerals could grow by six times, while the demand for minerals that power electric vehicle batteries could grow by 40 times.

"Rio Tinto Kennecott's claims hold around 20 million tons of developable mineral resources (and) a successful trial could expand this technology throughout Rio Tinto's global operations," Henderson said. "Investments in mining are investments in Utah. They're investments in Utahns. They're investments in America."

Utah Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson speaks during a press conference Kennecott Copper Mine near Herriman on Tuesday.

Utah Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson speaks during a press conference Kennecott Copper Mine near Herriman on Tuesday.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Rio Tinto Kennecott directly employs over 2,000 people while indirectly contributing to thousands more jobs throughout the state.

Additionally, the move to underground mining will allow Kennecott to continue mining from the Bingham Copper Mine without increasing the mine's footprint.

Joe Thomas, assistant director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, said that the department's top concern is improving air quality — something he said Kennecott can help with.

"For the last few years, many of the reductions in emissions in the Wasatch Front came from industry," Thomas said.

From 1995, half of the pollution in the area was reduced by industry initiatives in Utah, Thomas said.

He said that while the state has been enjoying a reduction in its emissions output, the rapidly growing nature of the state will eventually lead to an increase in emissions.

The Kennecott Copper Mine near Herriman, Salt Lake County, is pictured on Tuesday.

The Kennecott Copper Mine near Herriman, Salt Lake County, is pictured on Tuesday.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

"Light-duty, heavy-duty vehicles (and) off road equipment is particularly a big source of pollution," Thomas said. "We know that industry innovation can make a significant positive impact in our air quality and environment. By making this investment in modern technology to pilot zero-emissions mining equipment in the operation, Rio Tinto Kennecott is rising the bar, setting new standards for industry across the state."

Thomas said that the electrification of vehicles and mining equipment is an exciting time for his department — a position echoed by Foster.

"It's an exciting day for many reasons. We are confident these innovations will go down as a game changer in the long and rich history here at Kennecott," Foster said.