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Bingham Canyon Mine: World's Largest Man-made Excavation on Earth

Bingham Canyon Mine: World's Largest Man-made Excavation on Earth
Some claim that the Bingham Canyon Mine is the only man-made structure that is visible from an orbiting space shuttle. We'll will learn more about the facts and history of this enormous mine, and also the environmental effects that this large-scale excavation has had.
Satyajeet Vispute
Last Updated: Mar 19, 2018
Did You Know?
If the Bingham Canyon Mine was a stadium, it would seat nine million people.
Mine Open Pit
Mine Open Pit
The Bingham Canyon Mine, commonly known as Kennecott Copper Mine, is the largest man-made hole on Earth. It is an open-pit mine from which large amounts of porphyry copper is extracted each year. It is 2.5 miles wide and 0.6 miles deep. This mine is located to the southwest of the Salt Lake City, in the state of Utah in the United States. It is owned by the Rio Tinto Group which is an international mining and exploration company based in the U.K.
In 1966 this mine was designated as a National Historic Landmark. The Bingham Canyon Mine Visitors Center is located about 28 miles southwest of the Salt Lake City. It stands right at the edge of the mine and is an important tourist attraction.
Copper ore at the Bingham Canyon region was first discovered in 1848 by brothers Sanford and Thomas Bingham. They were the sons of Erastus Bingham who himself was one of the Mormon pioneers, who migrated across the United States from the Midwest to the Salt Lake Valley. Today this region forms the American state of Utah.

The Bingham brothers, while grazing cattle in this region, found the presence of copper ore. They reported this to their leader Brigham Young, who, however, counseled them against mining in the area citing that it would come in the way of establishing settlement for their people. The brothers heeded his advise did not pursue any mining activity there.

In 1863, owing to the increased demand for copper, mining began in the canyon, and soon its potential as a copper mine became popularly known. Initial mining efforts were less than productive because of the difficult terrain. Finally in 1873 when a railroad was built into the Canyon, mining activity increased substantially and miners began to settle in the nearby locations.
Till the end of the 19th century only small mines were dug in this region, until in 1898, Samuel Newhouse and Thomas Weir established the Boston Consolidated Mining Company with the intention of starting large-scale mining operation for extracting copper ore.

In 1903 Daniel C. Jackling and Enos A. Wall formed the Utah Copper Company which constructed a pilot mill at Copperton a small way off the mouth of the canyon, and began mining operations in 1906. They met with a lot of success excavating large quantities of low-grade porphyry copper, establishing open-pit copper mining patterns, which are still practiced predominantly in the copper industry even today.

In 1990 Utah Copper and Boston Consolidated merged. The Kennecott Copper Corporation which ran mining operations in Kennecott, Alaska, bought financial interests in Utah Copper in 1915 and completely acquired it in 1936. In 1989, the Rio Tinto Group purchased the Kennecott Copper Mine, and has invested close to $2 billion in modernization the mining operations and procedures.
Mining at the Bingham Canyon flourished, and by the 1920s, around 15,000 people of various ethnicity settled in the communities established on the steep walls of the canyon. However, due to the ever improving mining technology and the continued expansion of the mine itself, these settlements were eventually uprooted and by 1980, only around 800 people remained in Copperton at the mouth of the Bingham Canyon.

In 1985, the use of outdated mining equipment increased the cost of extraction to the point that profits became hard to come by. In response, the owners had the antique 1000-car railroad replaced by conveyor belts and pipes for moving the ore and waste receptively. This reduced the operational cost by almost 30% and made it possible to obtain profits once again.

The Bingham Canyon Mine today is one of the largest open-pit mines in the world. In 2005, further expansion of the mine about 600 feet to the east began. This work has been undertaken to increase mining operation and further explore the capabilities of this region.
In addition to the nearly 300,000 tons of copper that is extracted from the Bingham Canyon Mine annually, approximately 400,000 ounces of gold, 4 million ounces of silver, 30 million pounds of molybdenum, and 1 million tons of sulfuric acid are also obtained every year.
Mine Maintenance Shop
Through its various mining operations in the Bingham Canyon Mine, Rio Tinto Kennecott provides nearly a quarter of the copper required by the U.S. In its long operational period, this mine has produced more than 19 million tons of copper, which is more than any other copper mine in the world.
Environmental Impact
A century of mining at the Bingham Canyon Mine has led to numerous environmental effects that are a cause of grave concern amongst environmentalists. A few notable ones from among these are listed below.

The large-scale mining operations release a mammoth amounts of toxic pollutants in the atmosphere. Studies have revealed that this is the second most polluting mine in the USA.

The northern zone of this mine has been listed as one of the most polluted and hazardous waste sites.
Environmentalists claim that unchecked mining activities for several decades have damaged the wildlife habitat in the surrounding region. It has also led to a significant amount of water pollution, which has had a destructive effect on the aquatic flora and fauna. It even poses a grave risk to public health.
From the year 2000, the Bingham Canyon copper mine has had several chemical spills including Copper tailings, Sulfuric acid, unclean process water, arsenic, lead , chromium, ore slurry etc. The EPA has determined that a 72-mile plume of contaminated groundwater has resulted due to the multiple run-offs from the mining operation.

The plans to expand the mine and increase mining activity are a threat to the environment. There is a great risk of air, water, land dust and other types of pollution.
In the Northern zone near Magna, Utah, a large tailings pond has been collecting tailings since the mine began operation. It is already at 1.8 billion ton capacity. This structure is believed to be unstable and may lead to large-scale damage if it were to collapse due to an earthquake. In the period between 2000 and 2009 there have been 6 major earthquakes of up to 3.4 magnitude, having an epicenter at only around 3 miles from Magna.

Environmentalists, organization, state, and federal agencies, time and again, have had to resort to legal measures to compel the company to comply with the environmental protection regulations. Since the past two decades, the mine has spent in excess of $400 million on clean-up efforts in order to avoid being placed on the Superfund National Priorities List.
Realizing that the steep walls of the pit increased the chances of landslides in the Bingham Canyon Mine, an interferometric radar system was installed to monitor the stability of the ground. This system issued warnings on April 9th 2013 owing to which mining operations were halted.

On April 10, 2013, at 9:30 PM, an enormous landslide occurred in which around 65-70 million cubic meters of dirt and rocks tumbled down towards the pit's floor. It was the largest non-volcanic landslide in North American history. This slide reduced the copper production by 100,000 tons, thanks to the warnings given by the radar system, no one was injured in this event.

On September 11, 2013 another slide took place which led to the evacuation of 100 workers.
The Bingham Canyon Mine is truly an impressive man-made structure, which is slated to continue growing in the coming future. It provides a large amount of copper and other important minerals and substances. However, the adverse environmental effects of this mine are all too real as well. It is most important that these effects be analyzed and appropriate protective measure be taken to reduce pollution and environmental destruction, and avoid any possible catastrophe.