In 1906, Kennecott Utah Copper established a mine in Bingham Canyon, less than 50km south of Salt Lake City. The Kennecott mine has produced more copper than any mine in history and is the world´s largest open put mine [11, 1]. Rio Tinto bought the Kennecott mine in 1989 . Since then, the mine has had a long history of environmental conflicts and has caused Salt Lake City to become the 9th most toxic major metropolitan area in the United States .
Infamously, in 2003, over 100 trade union delegates criticized Rio Tinto´s poor working conditions and environmental concerns at the 4th Rio Tinto Global Union Network Conference. According to the United Steelworkers of America, Rio Tinto illegally violated workers´contracts, discriminated against workers, and laid them off without warning. Moreover, according to United Steelworkers of America spokesperson Tom Johnson, "Rio Tinto does not make an effort to use technologies that are more sustainable. They do not discuss with local communities their environmental impact. They operate in secret with governments and with groups that are friendly to them." .
In 2011, Rio Tinto expanded the mine deeper underground as well as extending its perimeter further south to access more copper, gold, silver, and molybdenum deposits. A coalition of civil society groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, Utah Medical Association, Utah Clean Air Alliance, Sierra Club, and Friends of Great Salt Lake protested the decision because of the company´s history of violating clean air standards. Kennecott at the time contributed to 70% of the county´s pollution, and its expansion added 14% more . That year, Forbes Maganize also listed Salt Lake City as the 9th most toxic city in the United States, alleging Kennecott as the biggest contributor. The exposure of local communities to waste rock pile, fugitive dust and tailings emission along with toxic heavy metals and ground water pollution threatened the mostly elderly and very young population, contributing to the deaths of up to 200 people yearly . The health consequences of Kennecot´s air pollution included chronic heart, lung, and brain diseases, higher rates of birth defects and miscarriages, and more .
In 2012, the Olympics Committee announced the 2012 London summer games would be the greenest ever, which was widely criticized because Rio Tinto among other environmentally dubious companies would be sponsoring the games. Rio Tinto provided the metal to make the 4,700 gold, silver, and bronze Olympic and Paralympic medals primarily from its Kennecott Mine, but also a small amount from its mines in Mongolia . In response, Meredith Alexander quit her position as commissioner of the London 2012 sustainability team to mobilize a coalition of environmental and human rights organizations such as the London Mining Network, Utah Moms for Clean Air, United Steelworkers, and more in the Greenwash Gold campaign campaign at the Amnesty Human Rights Center, staging a mock competition for the worst (least ethical) Olympic sponsor . Protestors wearing gas masks also gathered outside Rio Tinto´s annual meeting and the London Parliament to call upon the Olympic committee to drop Rio Tinto and hand out medals with the inscription ¨Don´t let Rio Tinto tarnish the Olympic Games¨ .
In 2013, the American Lung Association published a State of the Air report giving Salt Lake City the worst grade. In response, various health organizations jointly sued Rio Tinto, including the Sierra Club, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, Utah Moms for Clean Air and WildEarth Guardians . The US Court ruled in favor of Rio Tinto. Although the campaigners argued that the operation was exceeding the maximum amount of pollutants accepted by Salt Lake County under the Clean Air Act and that the state wasn’t authorized to approve a 2011 permit allowing Kennecott to expand operations because such plan violated the mentioned act, federal judge Robert Shelby said that the state granted Kennecott all the necessary permits each time it increased the amount of material at the mine, without violating any laws .
In 2020, the Stop the Polluting Port Coalition banded together 28 organizations including the Center for Biological Diversity, League of Women Voters of Salt Lake, the Westpointe Community Council, and those from the Greenwash Gold campaign to call on Rio Tinto Kennecott to stop developing land it purchased in the northwest of Salt Lake City. The campaigners advocated turning the property into permanent conservation to protect the wildlife, air, and water around the Great Salt Lake. At the time, the Kennecott mine was the second-largest source of toxic releases in the United States. In response, Rio Tinto created the 1,500ha Inland Sea Shorebird Reserve to mitigate the impact of its expansion .
In 2021, Rio Tinto announced plans to build a new $2.9 million plant recovering tellurium, a mineral used in solar panels, as a byproduct from copper refining at the Kennecott mine . Rio Tinto also approved a $108 million investment in the underground expansion of approximately 4,500 meters laterally and 300 meters vertically for drilling more gold and copper, which is expected to be completed in 2024. The company is currently conducting feasibility studies to extend open pit mining beyond 2032 .