Mine landslide will hurt Utah’s economy in the short term; the company will run out of copper in months

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SALT LAKE CITY – The landslide that swept the terraced steps of a mining pit nearly a mile deep left only the tip of a giant electric shovel sticking out of the earth. The rubble buried three of them, along with 14 huge transport trucks.

More of Kennecott Utah Copper’s equipment was buried under uneven rubble piles up to 300 feet deep in the pit west of Salt Lake City.

It will take months for America’s main copper mine to recover from the devastating landslide, even if it was anticipated by the company. He ran further than expected, burying the equipment that had been staged there for a search.

Still, company officials tried to appear optimistic Thursday by opening the Bingham Canyon mine for the first time since the April 10 slide.

“There is no doubt in my mind that there is a future in mining here,” said Kelly Sanders, head of Kennecott Utah Copper. “We will take up this challenge.”

Sanders said the company could resume limited ore mining in a few days, but a full recovery could take a year.

Kennecott, which will run from a stockpile, will run out of copper in a few months and has halved its production target for 2013. The company has asked 2,100 workers to take vacation or unpaid time off, but few still do.

Sanders spoke to reporters at the edge of the breathtaking, now barren pit. It stretches almost three miles wide, surrounded by snow-capped mountains.

Company officials say 165 million tonnes of waste rock and earth slid along one wall of the pit. They said they had been expecting it for months and kept the workers away that day.

The slip progressed in three pulses over three hours over multiple paths instead of falling all at once, nearly filling the bottom of the pit, said Matt Lengerich, general manager of the mine. They were so powerful that earthquake monitors operated by the University of Utah recorded the agitation down to a magnitude of 2.4.

Experts say this could be a big blow to Utah’s economy in the near term, depending on how quickly Kennecott can recover. It was not clear Thursday. Sanders said it would take the company four months to come up with a plan for full exploitation.

Transport trucks swept away loads of waste rock on Thursday, but not landslide debris. Instead, they continued to expand the mine, an operation halted for just 48 hours after the landslide. It will take Kennecott another five years of digging to complete the expansion before it reaches new ore deposits, Lengerich said. The works are taking place on one side of the pit opposite the landslide.

The effects are already being felt at one of Kennecott Utah Copper’s external subcontractors. Cementation USA Inc. said it had laid off more than 40 workers who were digging a tunnel in the pit to assess the quality of the ore. Two tunnels and drilling equipment were buried by the landslide.

Sanders said no decision has been made regarding layoffs at Kennecott, although he has repeatedly stressed that the company needs to cut costs to accommodate lower production targets. Workers are reassigned and a copper smelter was also operating at reduced levels.

Kennecott has informed investors that it will produce 140,000 tonnes less copper in 2013. It had planned to move 260 million tonnes of rock from the pit, but faces a nearly equally large waste pile.

Company officials weren’t sure how much cleaning was needed – they could leave some of it in place and work around the problem.

Kennecott officials say two crucial pieces of equipment – a rock crusher and a conveyor belt – were left undamaged inside the pit, allowing for faster recovery. They said federal regulators did not grant them access to the bottom of the pit until Thursday.

The landslide was a major setback, University of Utah economists said. Kennecott adds $ 1.2 billion a year to Utah’s economy, employs 2,810 workers with wages and salaries of $ 270 million, and supports 14,971 other jobs, according to the Bureau of Economic and Business Research of the ‘school.

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