The Bingham Canyon Mine, also known as the Kennecott Copper Mine, is one of the largest and most productive mines in the world. Located in the Oquirrh Mountains in Utah, this open-pit mining operation has been extracting porphyry copper deposits for over a century. What began as a small underground mine in the late 1800s has since grown into a massive operation that produces over 300,000 tons of copper annually. The mine also produces significant amounts of gold, silver, and molybdenum.
The Bingham Canyon Mine is not only a significant economic driver for the state of Utah, but it is also an essential contributor to the global supply of copper. It is estimated that the mine holds over 2.75 billion tons of ore, making it one of the largest copper deposits in the world. The mine operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and employs over 2,000 people.
History of Bingham Canyon Mine
Copper ore was first discovered in Bingham Canyon in 1848 by two brothers, Sanford and Thomas Bingham. The Bingham brothers were the sons of Erastus Bingham, a Latter-Day Saint pioneer who arrived in September 1847.
It was only after the organization of mining districts in Utah on September 17, 1863, that the extraction of copper ore began, and the mineral resources of the canyon were recognized. The first claim, the “Jordan S.M.Co” (Silver Mining Company), was located on the same day the district was established. This marked the beginning of a mineral-rich era in the region, and the potential of the canyon’s resources began to be widely acknowledged.
In 1903, the establishment of the Utah Copper Company marked a significant development in the Bingham mining industry. Daniel C. Jackling and Enos A. Wall’s organization of the company paved the way for the construction of a pilot mill at Copperton. The company quickly began mining operations in 1906.
In 1915, the Kennecott Copper Corporation, which operated copper mines in Kennecott, Alaska, purchased a 25 percent financial interest in Utah Copper, which was later increased to 75 percent in 1923. This acquisition allowed Kennecott to expand its copper mining operations in Utah.
Bingham’s copper mining industry expanded rapidly in the early 20th century, resulting in a bustling community of 15,000 people residing within the canyon’s vicinity. However, advancements in mining techniques led to a decline in population as several mining camps were absorbed into the mine. By 1980, only Copperton, located at the canyon’s entrance and home to 800 people, remained.
The 21 separate mines that were operating since 1911 were consolidated into two in 1970: Kennecott and The Anaconda Mineral Company. In 1985, Kennecott ended its open-pit mining operations; a year later, the company discovered gold in Barney’s Canyon, also near Bingham.
It was also in the 1980s when Kennecott went through a series of owners, first by Sohio in 1981 and subsequently by BP Minerals. Kennecott’s assets under BP Minerals were later acquired by its current owner, the Rio Tinto Group.
The Bingham Canyon ore deposits are located within the Bingham nappe and are classified as a porphyry copper deposit. The formation of these deposits can be attributed to the intrusion of a quartz monzonite porphyry into sedimentary rocks. These deposits feature a concentric alteration pattern and mineralogic zonation around the Bingham stock.
The various zones within these deposits are characterized by distinct mineral compositions and grades, with a central core containing magnetite and an outermost lead-zinc zone. The bornite-chalcopyrite-gold higher grade copper zone and the pyrite-chalcopyrite zone are noteworthy due to their high copper content.
Copper and molybdenum sulfide minerals are widely dispersed within the intruded stock and the adjoining carbonate sedimentary skarns in Bingham Canyon. The primary stratigraphic rocks in this location are Upper Pennsylvanian sandstones, quartzites, and limestones, otherwise known as the Bingham Mine Formation in the Oquirrh Group.
The central porphyry ores originate from mantle hydrothermal circulation, while the outer vein and deposits in the sedimentary rocks arise from lower temperatures when magmatic and meteoric waters mix.
The geological composition of this area is complex, and its study requires expertise and precision to fully understand the processes and mechanisms behind the formation of these minerals.
Environmental Impact of the Mines
The historical impact of mining operations on the environment is well-documented, and the Kennecott mine is no exception. With adverse effects on the habitats of fish and wild animals, as well as air and water pollution that created health hazards for the surrounding public, the mine’s legacy is a cautionary tale of industrial-age excess.
However, since the early 1990s, Kennecott has made significant strides in addressing these issues, committing over $400 million to clean-up efforts in affected areas. This investment has helped the company avoid regulatory laws that would have placed them on the Superfund National Priorities List (NPL).
One of the most controversial issues surrounding the Bingham Canyon Mine was in 1990, where it was discovered that homes built on former flood plains were contaminated with high levels of lead and arsenic. This issue was addressed through a multi-faceted approach, which involved the Utah Department of Environmental Quality and federal oversight. Activities to clean up the 100 years of accumulated impacts began in the 1990s and continue to this day.
The mines have likewise made Bingham Canyon vulnerable to landslides. On April 10, 2013, a significant landslide occurred at a mine, resulting in the thunderous collapse of around 2.3-2.5 billion cubic feet of dirt and rock down the side of the pit. This event is considered possibly the largest historic non-volcanic landslide in North America. Prior to the occurrence of the landslide, an interferometric radar system was installed to monitor the ground’s stability due to the mine’s steep walls.
Despite this precaution, the landslide was expected to severely impact the mine’s copper production, causing a loss of 100,000 tonnes. A second landslide occurred on September 11, 2013, resulting in the evacuation of 100 workers; the most recent landslide occurred on May 31, 2021.
The Bingham Canyon Mine is currently under the ownership of the Rio Tinto Group, a renowned British-Australian multinational corporation. The mine’s copper operations are expertly managed by the Kennecott Utah Copper Corporation, which oversees the mining process, concentrator plant, smelter, and refinery.
With a workforce of around 2,000 people, the mine extracts a staggering 450,000 short tons of material each day. The use of electric shovels allows for the transportation of up to 56 cubic yards of ore in a single scoop, weighing almost 100 short tons. The ore is then transported by a fleet of 64 large dump trucks, each capable of carrying up to 255 short tons at a time. At a cost of approximately $3 million per truck, this operation is a significant investment. The mined ore is then transported via a five-mile series of conveyors to the Copperton concentrator and flotation plant, the longest conveyor in the series spanning an impressive 3 miles.
Since 2010, Kennecott has established itself as the second largest copper producer in the United States, catering to about 13-18% of the country’s copper demands. It is a notable producer of copper on a global scale, with production exceeding 18.7 million short tons. Kennecott’s annual copper production stands at approximately 300 thousand short tons, while also yielding substantial amounts of gold, silver, molybdenum, and sulfuric acid which is a by-product of the smelting process.
Bingham Canyon has established a reputation as one of the most productive mines worldwide. Its ore has yielded remarkable quantities of copper, gold, silver, and molybdenum, with over 17 million tons of copper, 23 million ounces of gold, 190 million ounces of silver, and 850 million pounds of molybdenum extracted as of 2004. The value of the resources extracted from Bingham Canyon surpasses the combined worth of the Comstock Lode, Klondike, and California gold rush mining regions.
The remarkably high molybdenum prices in 2005 made the molybdenum extracted at Bingham Canyon that year worth more than the copper. In 2006, the value of metals produced at Bingham Canyon reached an impressive US$1.8 billion.
Visiting Bingham Canyon Mine
The mine is located approximately 28 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, Utah, and is accessible via a well-maintained roadway. Visitors can take the Utah State Route 201 to Interstate 80, which intersects with State Route 201 heading southwest. From there, visitors can follow State Route 201 to State Route 111, which leads to the entrance of the Bingham Copper Mine.
Visitors can reach the mine by car or by taking a guided tour. The mine offers various tours, including open-pit tours, underground tours, and interactive exhibits. It is essential to book your spot in advance to avoid disappointment, especially during peak tourist seasons. Visitors should also wear comfortable, sturdy shoes and dress appropriately for the weather as the mine is located at high altitude.
The best time to visit the Bingham Canyon Mine is during the summer months of June to August when the weather is warm, sunny, and comfortable for outdoor activities. Also, the mine offers guided tours that run from 9 am to 3 pm daily during this time.