Why is Utah Fast-Tracking the Permit for a Massive Expansion of Kennecott's Tailings Impoundment?

The Utah Division of Water Quality (DWQ) has issued a draft modification for the Ground Water Discharge Permit (UGW350011) for the proposed expansion of the Kennecott Utah Copper Tailings Impoundment. Public comments are due August 12, 2013. The conservation community has a number of concerns about the adequacy and the timing of this proposed permit and is calling on DWQ to withdraw the draft permit until sufficient information is available to fully inform the permitting process and the public.

DWQ’s proposed approval now of this permit modification is premature. Approval of the enlarged footprint of the Tailings Impoundment is still under consideration by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and it is likely that the Corps will require changes to that proposal which would make this permit modification moot. The Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the project will not be issued by the Corps until sometime next year, with a Final EIS unlikely until late 2014 or 2015. Both DWQ’s decision and the public comments on that decision should be informed by information produced by the EIS.

The proposed expansion is a massive project requiring several additional major, time-consuming approvals, including permission to realign four miles of the Union Pacific railroad tracks and to build an overpass bridge along 7200 West. The groundwater permit modification is not urgent.

DWQ admits that arsenic levels in the shallow groundwater have exceeded water quality standards, but refuses to consider whether the arsenic in these aquifers is contributing to the high levels of arsenic in the Great Salt Lake’s Gilbert Bay. There is no quantification of the level of arsenic pollution cased by the Tailings Impoundment or historic operations in the area – nor any plans to ascertain those levels.

DWQ makes unsubstantiated assertions that there will be no significant degradation of groundwater quality without defining what that means or suggesting any plans to prevent further degradation. DWQ admits that the weight of the Tailings Impoundment (at over 290 feet high!) will cause movement of waters in the tailings through the Bonneville Clay layer into the underlying aquifers.

DWQ makes unjustified assertions that the passive use of the Bonneville Clay layer as a liner constitutes “Best Available Technology” for minimizing discharges of pollutants, thus exempting Kennecott from installing additional liners under the expansion. This despite knowing that the clay is thin in some locations and missing in others, and that contamination of groundwater has occurred.

There are significant questions whether the waste streams authorized under this permit for placement in the Tailings Impoundment are exempt from treatment as hazardous waste (under RCRA).

There are questions whether there will be adequate measures put into place to prevent acidification of the tailings materials long term and after KUC’s mining ceases.

DWQ should wait until the completion of the EIS process - there is no reason for DWQ to issue approval of this permit at this time.

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Why We Care

  • To travelers so long shut among the mountain ranges a sudden view over the expanse of silent waters had in it something sublime. Several large islands raised their rocky heads out of the waves. . . . Then, a storm burst down with sudden fury upon the lake, and entirely hid the islands from our view.

    John C. Fremont, Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains, 1845
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