How Are Landslides at Kennecott Copper Being Prevented?

BINGHAM CANYON, Utah (ABC4 Utah) - Recent activity inside the walls of the Kennecott Copper Mine has workers preparing for any dangerous movements in the ground.

Many of us remember the massive landslide that occurred at the mine back in 2013.  It dumped several millions of tons of debris into the mine.  Two days ago, movement was felt on the left side of the mine and per protocols and advanced data gathering equipment Kennecott evacuated the area to allow for the runoff to take place, and it did.  

But now workers are concentrating their efforts and research on an area not too far from the movement that took place on Tuesday.  An area known as Main Hill and for the first time ever Kennecott launched drones to help them gather more information about the movement.  

It was Dave Meador and his team who made the decision to shut down operations on the west side of the mine after that movement took place.  Dave has been the Mine Operations Manager at Kennecott since 2013.  His job is to work with several geotechnical engineers to analyze data and make decisions regarding the safety of the mine.

On Tuesday, "we isolated the area, we waited until that material moved and then we reopened after confirming there was no additional movement in the area," he said.

Using highly sophisticated software and equipment they monitor movement in the ground from the inside out.

"We've got a variety of monitoring systems currently that are checking dilation and movement rates on the western wall that really allow us to understand how to appropriately put control in place to keep people safe," says Meador.

Their arsenal includes GPS monitoring which sends information to satellites in space.  The data is used to detect movement and reposition the satellites to help workers on the ground get a better look at what is happening at the mine.  

They also rely on a network of skyboxes and IBIS radar systems to monitor the walls of the mine around the clock.  These systems incorporate advanced survey technology to monitor slope movement at the mine.  The instruments are able to work in even the poorest of conditions, in adverse weather and at low visibility.. 

But besides the equipment, Kennecott also relies on the trained eyes of over 800 employees who handle the daily operations at the mine.  

To prepare for these kinds of situations Kennecott enacts Trigger Action Response Plans or TARPs for short.  TARPs identify triggers for specific areas which include movement rates, and size of cracking in the walls.  When areas cross the thresholds that are placed TARPs enacts a response which usually leads to temporary shut down of operations and closure of the affected area.  They also reduce mining rates in the area to ensure the safety of workers.  

For the first time ever drones were sent out into the sky to monitor the walls even closer.  The drones would use prisms which are used to gather data on the instability of a zone, and their movement is monitored 24/7 by geotechnical engineers.  The drones used today took a closer look at the cracks in the walls to allow engineers to make educated decisions on what course of action should take place. 

All the equipment is so accurate monitoring the walls in many different ways their data comes within hundredths if not thousandths of an inch.

"We're watching continually, and then every fifteen minutes we'll get a new update like, 'oh, here's a new piece of data,' and then we watch for trends," said Joan Danninger, a Mine Technical Services Manager who has worked at the mine for the last 8 years.  

Snow fall, runoff, precipitation and moisture as responsible for this type of movement.  Those elements get into the walls during the Spring.  An increase in temperature can also lead to movement.  As it begins to get warmer elements tend to expand.  The mine has a weather station on site that monitors movement due to weather and the engineers take the information to distinguish what type of movement it is.  Kennecott says their systems are so accurate they can clear an area days before anything major takes place.

"Really the aim in most of our response plans are around ensuring that theres' no one in the area well in advance," said Meador.  

Meador and his team - working with such high level of sophistication - that not a single life has been lost due to a landslide, even during the massive landslide of 2013.  

"That's the key, how do we isolate areas well in advance," said Meador.

Workers do expect some sort of movement along the west side of the wall this Spring but they say it impacts a small area it's effects wont be felt on operations, employees, or the mine or people in general. 


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