Friday, May 18, 2012

Bumping into the Environment in Your Backyard

There could be a worse fate than having an environmental law professor as a parent, but one byproduct of that relationship is this:  You might spend your first birthday at a copper mine.  That, at least, is what my daughter learned today.  I am hoping, when she is 38, she'll forgive me.  I'm just not counting on it.

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We live a fifteen-minute drive from the highest yielding copper mine in the history of the world.  And I had never been there, until today.  When my sons arrived home from school, the first words out of their mouths were that they needed to go with their friends on a neighborhood field trip to the mine, and that I needed to give them a ride (I am still not convinced they didn't invite themselves on the trip, but my good friend and neighbor, Megan, insists that this point of procedure is immaterial, so I am taking her at her word).

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It was on this occasion that we thus shortly found ourselves winding my Smurf-blue Prius up the roads to the Rio Tinto Kennecott Utah Bingham Canyon Mine.  If you've never been, it's a trip worth taking.  The sheer size of the mine is staggering.  My sons got very nervous when I told them that from the entry booth, we were going to have to walk up the overburden piles to get to see the mine.  To give you a better sense of the mine's immensity, here are a few interesting facts, according to Rio Tinto:

  • The mine has produced more copper than any other -- about 19 million tons.

  • It is 3/4 of a mile deep and 2 3/4 miles wide at the top.

  • Two Sears Towers (aka Willis Buildings) could be stacked on top of each other inside the mine and not reach the top.

  • Miners drill about 200 holes that are 75-100 feet deep per day; they pack each hole with 1,200 pounds of blasting agents.

  • The mine uses about 80 "gigantic" haul trucks.  Each truck costs about $3.5 million.

  • Stretching out all the roads that wind around the mine would create about 500 miles of roadway -- more than enough to reach Denver from Salt Lake City.

  • The mine is one of the few humanmade objects visible from space.

Untitled(Photo: Sughra Raza)

Visiting the mine was a fascinating experience.  I learned a lot I never knew about the copper production process: from mining and concentrating to smelting and refining.  I realized that far more products than I imagined use copper in them.  And I finally saw, up close and personal, a landmark that gets a lot of play in the local environmental community.

To some degree, this trip was ironic for me.  I was born and raised in Utah but had never been to the mine.  I've lived a short distance from it for over a year and still hadn't made the trek.  My grandfather used to work at the mine, and I never went with him.  Perhaps most of all, I spent the entire morning editing an article and thus thinking heavily and deeply about our interactions with the environment -- something I, and I assume, most other environmental law professors, do on a regular basis -- and yet I had never made the effort to explore this corner of my own home environment.

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There is utility in making such trips.  As educators, I am convinced we have a duty to teach at all times, and that is part of why I was so willing to drop everything and take my kids up Bingham Canyon.  Even more than that, though, environmentalists -- and I count myself as one -- sometimes can get myopic about issues.  That's particularly easy when we divorce ourselves from the land, from the industry, from the systems (natural and otherwise) that surround us.  It's easy indeed when we spend most of the times sitting in our offices, reading fascinating texts, and writing on flat-screen computers.  So, as the seasons change and summer arrives, I'm committing myself to doing it more often: getting out and being in, not just writing about, the environment that sustains us all and that we need to, we must, care so deeply about.

It's good to bump into the environment more often, especially in our own backyards. 

I'm already planning on visiting the Bingham Canyon Mine again.  I might take my daughter too, even if it's not her birthday.

-Lincoln Davies

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