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Rio Tinto’s Kennecott Copper Mine near Salt Lake City, Utah, USA


In 1906, Kennecott Utah Copper established a mine in Bingham Canyon, less than 50km south of Salt Lake City. The Kennecott mine has produced more copper than any mine in history and is the world´s largest open put mine [11, 1]. Rio Tinto bought the Kennecott mine in 1989 [11]. Since then, the mine has had a long history of environmental conflicts and has caused Salt Lake City to become the 9th most toxic major metropolitan area in the United States [1].

Infamously, in 2003, over 100 trade union delegates criticized Rio Tinto´s poor working conditions and environmental concerns at the 4th Rio Tinto Global Union Network Conference. According to the United Steelworkers of America, Rio Tinto illegally violated workers´contracts, discriminated against workers, and laid them off without warning. Moreover, according to United Steelworkers of America spokesperson Tom Johnson, "Rio Tinto does not make an effort to use technologies that are more sustainable. They do not discuss with local communities their environmental impact. They operate in secret with governments and with groups that are friendly to them." [10]. 

In 2011, Rio Tinto expanded the mine deeper underground as well as extending its perimeter further south to access more copper, gold, silver, and molybdenum deposits. A coalition of civil society groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, Utah Medical Association, Utah Clean Air Alliance, Sierra Club, and Friends of Great Salt Lake protested the decision because of the company´s history of violating clean air standards. Kennecott at the time contributed to 70% of the county´s pollution, and its expansion added 14% more [9]. That year, Forbes Maganize also listed Salt Lake City as the 9th most toxic city in the United States, alleging Kennecott as the biggest contributor. The exposure of local communities to waste rock pile, fugitive dust and tailings emission along with toxic heavy metals and ground water pollution threatened the mostly elderly and very young population, contributing to the deaths of up to 200 people yearly [7]. The health consequences of Kennecot´s air pollution included chronic heart, lung, and brain diseases, higher rates of birth defects and miscarriages, and more [8].

In 2012, the Olympics Committee announced the 2012 London summer games would be the greenest ever, which was widely criticized because Rio Tinto among other environmentally dubious companies would be sponsoring the games. Rio Tinto provided the metal to make the 4,700 gold, silver, and bronze Olympic and Paralympic medals primarily from its Kennecott Mine, but also a small amount from its mines in Mongolia [2]. In response, Meredith Alexander quit her position as commissioner of the London 2012 sustainability team to mobilize a coalition of environmental and human rights organizations such as the London Mining Network, Utah Moms for Clean Air, United Steelworkers, and more in the Greenwash Gold campaign campaign at the Amnesty Human Rights Center, staging a mock competition for the worst (least ethical) Olympic sponsor [6][3]. Protestors wearing gas masks also gathered outside Rio Tinto´s annual meeting and the London Parliament to call upon the Olympic committee to drop Rio Tinto and hand out medals with the inscription ¨Don´t let Rio Tinto tarnish the Olympic Games¨ [3].

In 2013, the American Lung Association published a State of the Air report giving Salt Lake City the worst grade. In response, various health organizations jointly sued Rio Tinto, including the Sierra Club, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, Utah Moms for Clean Air and WildEarth Guardians [7]. The US Court ruled in favor of Rio Tinto. Although the campaigners argued that the operation was exceeding the maximum amount of pollutants accepted by Salt Lake County under the Clean Air Act and that the state wasn’t authorized to approve a 2011 permit allowing Kennecott to expand operations because such plan violated the mentioned act, federal judge Robert Shelby said that the state granted Kennecott all the necessary permits each time it increased the amount of material at the mine, without violating any laws [13].

In 2020, the Stop the Polluting Port Coalition banded together 28 organizations including the Center for Biological Diversity, League of Women Voters of Salt Lake, the Westpointe Community Council, and those from the Greenwash Gold campaign to call on Rio Tinto Kennecott to stop developing land it purchased in the northwest of Salt Lake City. The campaigners advocated turning the property into permanent conservation to protect the wildlife, air, and water around the Great Salt Lake. At the time, the Kennecott mine was the second-largest source of toxic releases in the United States. In response, Rio Tinto created the 1,500ha Inland Sea Shorebird Reserve to mitigate the impact of its expansion [4]. 

In 2021, Rio Tinto announced plans to build a new $2.9 million plant recovering tellurium, a mineral used in solar panels, as a byproduct from copper refining at the Kennecott mine [5]. Rio Tinto also approved a $108 million investment in the underground expansion of approximately 4,500 meters laterally and 300 meters vertically for drilling more gold and copper, which is expected to be completed in 2024. The company is currently conducting feasibility studies to extend open pit mining beyond 2032 [11].

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Rio Tinto’s Kennecott Copper Mine near Salt Lake City, Utah, USA
Country:United States of America
State or province:Utah
Location of conflict:Salt Lake City
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Mineral Ores and Building Materials Extraction
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Mineral ore exploration
Tailings from mines
Mineral processing
Specific commodities:Copper
Rare metals
Industrial waste
Recycled Metals

Project Details and Actors

Project details

The mine is owned by Rio Tinto Group, a British-Australian multinational corporation. The copper operations at Bingham Canyon Mine are managed through Kennecott Utah Copper Corporation which operates the mine, a concentrator plant, a smelter, and a refinery. The mine has been in production since 1906, and has resulted in the creation of a pit over 0.75 miles (1,210 m) deep, 2.5 miles (4 km) wide, and covering 1,900 acres (3.0 sq mi; 7.7 km2) [5].

Employing some 2,000 workers, 450,000 tons of material are removed from the mine daily. Every year, Kennecott produces approximately 300,000 tons of copper, 12 tons of gold, 137 tons of silver, 9,100 tons of molybdenum, and 910,000 tons of sulfuric acid. Mining permits originally expired in 2019, but have been extended to the mid-2030s [12].

Project area:900
Type of populationUrban
Start of the conflict:21/01/2003
Company names or state enterprises:Rio Tinto (Rio Tinto ) from United Kingdom
Kennecott Utah Copper from United States of America
Relevant government actors:US Court
International and Finance InstitutionsInternational Olympic Committee (IOC)
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:United Steelworkers of America, American Academy of Pediatrics, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, Utah Medical Association, Utah Clean Air Alliance, Sierra Club, Friends of Great Salt Lake, Utah Moms for Clean Air, WildEarth Guardians, London Mining Network, American Lung Association, Center for Biological Diversity, League of Women Voters of Salt Lake, the Westpointe Community Council

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Artisanal miners
Industrial workers
International ejos
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Trade unions
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Objections to the EIA
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Genetic contamination
Potential: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Mine tailing spills
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…)
Potential: Occupational disease and accidents
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Court decision (failure for environmental justice)
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:Despite the worldwide protests between Utah and London and beyond, Rio Tinto still made the medals for the Olympics and continues to expand its operations without impunty.

Sources & Materials

[1] Independent. Pollution row hits mining firm supplying Olympic medals (Sherwin 2011)

[2] BBC. London 2012 Olympic medal ores to be mined by Rio Tinto (2011)

[3] The Guardian. Olympic medal pollution protesters disrupt Rio Tinto meeting (Neate 2012)

[4] The Salt Lake Tribune. Inland port foes turn their attention to Kennecott and its Salt Lake City land holdings (Stevens 2020)

[5] Rio Tinto. Rio Tinto to build new tellurium plant at Kennecott mine (2021)

[6] KUER. Rio Tinto Targeted in Campaign Against Olympic Sponsors (2012)

[7] Friends of the Earth. Where your money goes: a worldwide tour of Rio Tinto’s wreckage (Tricarico 2015)

[8] Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. Rio Tinto - Kennecott (2019)

[9] The Salt Lake Tribune. Environmental groups protest Kennecott mine expansion (Fahys 2011)

[10] Deseret News. Union members protest mining giant's policies (Nii 2003)

[11] Mining. Rio Tinto spending $108m to study going underground at Kennecott (2021)

[12] Wikipedia. Bingham Canyon Mine

[13] Mining. Rio Tinto´s Kennecott Wins Clean Air Lawsuit in the US

Meta information

Contributor:Dalena Tran, ICTA-UAB, [email protected]
Last update21/10/2021
Conflict ID:5648



Protesters outside the Rio Tinto AGM

Photo credits: Tony Kyriacou

Kennecott mine

Photo source: Rio Tinto