For more than 140 years, mining has been a way of life in and around Bingham Canyon, which is southwest of Salt Lake City. Prospectors first walked into the canyon in 1863 in search of ore, but it was ten years before lead, silver, zinc, and gold deposits were worked.
Copper reserves also were found, but initially were considered too sparse to be mined economically. In 1896, though, deposits of copper were found in the Highland Boy gold mine. That discovery was the precursor to the most significant mining era in Bingham Canyon: the mining of low-grade copper ore and the advent of open-pit mining.
As the years passed, the landscape of Bingham Canyon changed significantly due to mining operations conducted by numerous companies. In 1936, Kennecott Copper bought Utah Copper. The mountain that Utah Copper first mined is today a massive open pit that is one of the world’s largest copper producers, one with notable related productions of gold, silver, and molybdenum. As the mine operations grew, so did mine-related contamination of the landscape. During the early years between 1863 and 1920s, Bingham Canyon was not surrounded by communities and environmental stewardship was not being addressed by industry or the government. Waste rock piles that contained concentrations of minerals covered much of the landscape. Runoff from rain and snowfall passed through them, carrying away dissolved solids, sulfates, and heavy metals, and contaminating the streams, soils, and ground water.
Kennecott’s North Zone is at the north end of the Oquirrh Mountains, on the south shore of the Great Salt Lake. Metal ore was smelted and processed there for almost a century, resulting in contaminated sludge, soils, surface water, and ground water. Lead, arsenic, and selenium are the main contaminants of concern. A plume of selenium-contaminated ground water enters nearby wetlands through springs and seeps are particularly troublesome because native birds are sensitive to selenium.