Look west anywhere in Salt Lake Valley and you won't see the future--Americans' traditional association with that compass point--but the past. In Bingham Canyon, at the foot of the Oquirrh Mountains, five generations of copper miners spanning the 20th century have cleared a pit three-fourths of a mile deep and more than 2 miles across, seemingly large enough to catch the expansive Utah sky should it ever fall in. The sky hangs securely above, but the state's economy, which since 1988 had seemed equally horizonless, has slipped with everyone else's into a canyon-like rut.
Kennecott Utah Copper, the mine's operator since 1903 and owner of some 40,000 developable acres in the western valley, has passed its golden age, when the pit was bottomless and facilities could pump and dump waste with abandon. Times have changed. A pound of copper sells for about half what it did five years ago, and cleaning up the environment absorbs many of the resulting pennies. So K.U.C. was pleased to stumble onto an asset that doesn't appear on the balance sheet of its corporate parent, Anglo-Australian mining behemoth Rio Tinto: its own backyard. There, a 4,500-acre community is expected to be built on a reclaimed polluting ground. Wheat grows there now.
While new housing generally doesn't warrant more than a fleeting stomach knot over the sacrifice of yet another field to the demon sprawl, the Sunrise project, as Kennecott has dubbed the 40,000-person development, will stand at the unlikely intersection of the latest in urban planning and new pressures on the mining business. A planned community a la New Urbanism, Sunrise will offer residents jobs and stores just a walk away, along with trees, parks and affordable housing for diverse incomes. The city of South Jordan, where Sunrise will be located, entitled the land in 2000, and the developer has hired urban planner Peter Calthorpe, who is helping to reanimate blighted spots like Denver's old Stapleton Airport. Kennecott Development president Peter McMahon wants to break ground for infrastructure next year. "There's just inevitable development heading in that direction," he says.
The project will address the valley's rapid growth and repay some of the environment-related capital expenses Rio Tinto has incurred during its 12-year ownership--a $2 billion total that includes a new, cleaner, $1 billion smelter. Bingham Canyon will wind down in the next 15 years, sticking Rio Tinto with further cleanup bills. The company's half-year returns show that K.U.C. constitutes 15% to 20% of its asset base but generated just 3% to 4% of its $841 million profit. Over the next 20 to 25 years, K.U.C.'s Sunrise could bring Rio Tinto the current equivalent of several hundred million dollars. Last year Rio Tinto earned $1.5 billion on revenue of $10 billion. It mines coal, copper, gold and talc in the U.S.