Mining For TruthPublished by MAC on 2007-05-17
Mining for Truth
Daybreak bloggers demand fuller disclosure on potential environmental hazards at Kennecott's shiny community.
By Jonah Owen Lamb, 17 May 2007
Kennecott Land's shiny new development Daybreak advertises itself as a "community" where you can "get away at home." Brochures reinforce this image with mothers walking their babies among flowers, past colonial-revival homes with wide front porches.
What is absent from brochures yet obvious to any Daybreak visitor is the Bingham Canyon Mine operated by Kennecott Utah Copper looming in the mountains above them. The open pit has left its own legacy for Daybreak.
According to Kennecott Land, the aquifer beneath the project is contaminated with sulfates, lead and arsenic from more than a century of mining.
Cleanup of polluted water is underway. And, while Kennecott's parent company Rio Tinto has complied with all cleanup requirements and disclosed Daybreak's environmental concerns to the public, some homeowners are troubled by what they see as a lack of complete disclosure and misleading information about the property.
"You can't get a straight answer out of these people," says resident John Miller.
Not so, says Kennecott Land spokeswoman Jana Kettering. "We have been quite transparent with this information," she says. Kennecott Land's 2006 sustainable development report includes a paragraph about Daybreak's environmental past and its Website devotes a section to the topic.
Two large areas—known as "plumes"—of polluted groundwater spread beneath much of South Jordan, where Daybreak is located. One plume, straddling Daybreak to the west, is undergoing cleanup under Environmental Protection Agency oversight. The cleanup project's timeline is unknown, according to Kelly Payne, Kennecott's principle adviser for closure and remediation.
Under the plan, Kennecott must provide 3,500 acre-feet a year of clean water for the next 39 years to replace the polluted aquifer. The company sells the cleaned plume water to Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District. Kennecott Utah Copper is also funding the cleanup of the other plume, which lies partially under Daybreak and near the Jordan River.
Still, requirements that each buyer sign a "covenant" acknowledging possible environmental hazards haven't slowed home sales. Neither do concerns of drinking water coming from the once-contaminated plume water.
According to Daybreak's Website, "The groundwater plume is approximately 300 feet beneath the surface of Daybreak and is not used at Daybreak or any other community in the southwest valley."
But water from the western plume is sold to people across the south valley. "One new source of water [for Jordan Valley] is from Kennecott's water treatment plant. That plant removes all detrimental substances from one of the plumes in the southwestern Salt Lake Valley and delivers it to Jordan Valley," says Alan Packard, chief engineer for the conservancy district.
Dianne Nielson, director of Utah's Department of Environmental Quality, adds, "It is safe to drink the water that has been cleaned by Kennecott, and it is safe to live at Daybreak."
The debate over safety has spilled out to bloggers in the community, who contend the company has waffled on its disclosure about environmental issues.
Dave Bastian, whose two children live at Daybreak, became concerned when he learned of the covenant, which read: "Due to the presence of elevated sulfate concentrations some of the soils are corrosive and/or conductive, which means the affected soils could cause damage to metal objects and/or certain types of concrete on the ground."
Bastian didn't feel any better after reading Kennecott's guarantee of safety: "While such sulfates, lead, arsenic and other metals in the groundwater may render the underground water undrinkable, it does not pose a health or safety concern or threat to individuals who may work, live or recreate in the Project."
Bastian's daughter, Summer, signed the document but says it was just one in a pile of papers from her real-estate transaction. "They haven't said anything to us at all," she says.
Another concern is the safety of the water in Oquirrh Lake, the 85-acre manmade lake at the center of Daybreak. Swimming is not allowed, "in order to create a diverse recreational mix for users," wrote Keith Morey, manager of Daybreak Community, in an e-mail to resident John Miller. Daybreak's website says, "Swimming will be prohibited, but only to protect the lake's natural balance, and the well-being of its resident wildlife." Yet Kennecott spokeswoman Kettering says that liability is the reason for a ban on swimming.
The lake was also stocked with more than 200,000 fish last year. Initially, people were told they could not fish there. Then they were told fishing was OK. Morey explains the change in policy came after the fish population had stabilized.
When Miller posted EPA documents and some of his concerns about fishing on the internal Website for Daybreak, his post was removed, and he was denied access. Morey explained: "The site is not intended to be used as a platform for anyone to attack the character of another individual or organization."
Miller also questioned Daybreak's disclosures concerning the community's status—or not—as an EPA Superfund site.
In Miller and Morey's exchange, Morey wrote: "None of the land at Daybreak was ever listed as an EPA Superfund site." This is true, but the site was on the National Priorities List, one step below a Superfund.
Doug Bacon, the cleanup project manager for the Utah DEQ, says Morey's statement isn't exactly correct. "Though not listed as a Superfund site, the parties involved recognized that the legacy of mining waste required cleanup to be performed following the Superfund process."
For Miller, the question wasn't just about the lake or any particular aspects of Daybreak. He wrote Morey, "It's really not about fishing or swimming. It's about hiding important past and present things from the people that live here."