Bingham Canyon copper mine, also known as Kennecott Copper Mine, is the largest man-made excavation in the world. What’s more, it has generated approximately 19 million tons of copper—more copper than any other mine in history.

Bingham Canyon Copper Mine

(Pixabay / JacquieS)

The mine is located in Salt Lake County in Northern Utah. Although it is a familiar fixture in the nearby communities, with throngs of people passing by the mine on a daily basis, its history and operations remain a mystery to many.

Here’s some background information on the sprawling, high-yield mine.

What’s in a name? The mine draws its name from two brothers, Sanford and Thomas Bingham. These Mormon pioneers grazed their cattle in Bingham Canyon and discovered copper ore there. They reported their findings to their spiritual leader, Brigham Young, who advised the brothers to focus on the most important task at hand—establishing settlements in the area. As a result, they did not pursue minerals in the canyon. It wasn’t until 15 years later that others began to extract ore from the area.

Just call it Kennecott. Most people refer to the Bingham Canyon mine as “Kennecott,” owing to its management company. While the mine is owned by a British-Australian multinational corporation, Rio Tinto Group, it is managed through Kennecott Utah Copper Corporation.

Over 100 years old. The Bingham Canyon Open-Pit Copper Mine has been in production since 1906. It has been named a National Historical Landmark.

Mighty big. The mine is .6 miles deep and 2.5 miles wide. It covers nearly 2,000 acres. The mine is so big that it can be seen by the naked eye from an orbiting space shuttle.

An army of workers. The mine employees around 2,000 workers.

Major copper producer. As of 2010, Kennecott copper was considered the second biggest producer of copper in the U.S., supplying the country with up to 18 percent of its copper. The value of the resources that have come out of the mine exceeds the Comstock Lode, California gold rush, and Klondike yield values combined.

Ups and downs. The mine has seen some rocky years. In 1985, Kennecott halted open-pit mining operations. The mine changed hands a couple of times over the next several years, ending up as an asset of the Rio Tinto Group. Rio Tinto helped revive the mine, adding a sophisticated network of conveyor belts and pipelines for moving ore and waste, and modernizing the mill and smelter. This increased efficiency and helped the mine become profitable once again.

The Magna smelter. Once the ore comes out of the mine, it has to be treated, and the magic happens in the nearby township of Magna, Utah. Mills grind the ore to powder. The particles are filtered through a process known as “froth flotation,” which yields copper along with lesser amounts of silver, gold, platinum, molybdenum, and a few other materials. The resulting slurry is then sent to the smelter for further filtering and purifying.

Other elements. Note that even though the mine is best known for its copper, other yields are sometimes more valuable. For example, the demand for molybdenum, which is commonly used in military armor, aircraft components, and electrical contacts, spiked in 2005 and became more valuable than the copper output for the year.

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