A recent Forbes article revealed that Utah is one of the worst in the nation when it comes to producing toxic chemicals. In fact, Utah was third-highest nationally, with an astounding 273 million pounds of toxic materials produced in 2016. What’s worse, 250 million pounds of those toxins came from Salt Lake County alone, making it one of the most toxic counties in the United States, second only to Alaska’s enormous Northwest Arctic Borough. Taking an even closer look, just two cities, Bingham Canyon and Magna, produced the majority of the toxins- nearly all of those 250 million pounds.
Utah has a reputation for being a beautiful place, and a visit to nearly any part of the state will confirm as much. But with this natural beauty comes a responsibility to care for it; nature can easily be damaged or destroyed, be it through simple carelessness or malicious disregard for the environment.
In Utah’s case, however, the answer is not as easy as cracking down on littering and cleaning up vandalism. Most of Utah’s toxin generation comes from byproducts of industrial operations, and some very specific ones at that. As shown below, the overwhelming majority of the toxins produced in Utah were generated by just two industries- metal mining and primary metals.
Now that we know which industries are responsible for most of Utah’s toxins, what is it about Salt Lake County which causes so many of them to be produced? The answer lies upon the east face of Utah’s Oquirrh Mountain range, the site of the massive Kennecott Copper Mine. The mine is one of the largest man-made excavations in the world, and is also the second-largest copper producer in the United States. As such, it is an important part of Utah’s economy- Rio Tinto, the company which owns the mine, directly employs 2,000 Utahns. It’s no mere coincidence that the two cities mentioned above- Bingham Canyon and Magna, which produced so many toxins- are where the mine itself and the Kennecott Garfield smelter, respectively, are located.
It’s true that Rio Tinto is responsible for most of the toxins produced in Utah, but there are plenty of other firms which together generate millions of pounds of toxic waste. Listed in the graphic below are the companies who were responsible for the production of 100,000 pounds or more of these materials in 2016.
Although the majority of Utah’s toxin generation is concentrated around Salt Lake County, toxin production happens across the state. From the Nucor Steel facility near the Utah-Idaho border to mining operations in Washington County, one can find examples all over, with the exception (of course) of federally-protected lands and state parks.
While efforts to ensure that these toxic materials are being safely transported and stored should be applauded, with so many toxins being produced, eventually we’re going to have to deal with them. We should also consider that with more and more toxins being generated, moved and stored every year, it becomes increasingly likely that there could be an accident which could release an untold amount of pollutants into the environment.
After analyzing and digesting this data, it seems clear that something needs to be done to reduce the amount of toxin production in Utah, but how? Care must be taken to avoid over-regulation which could cause economic downturn. The solution may be as simple as Utahns demanding more accountability from those in charge of the operations at fault. Simple actions such as informing oneself about this issue and taking the time to express concerns to representatives, if done on a large enough scale, could help lead to changes for the better.
If you are interested in digging into more data like that which was used as the basis for this article, visit this site to see more toxin data about Utah, as well as the other states dating back to 1987. If you are interested in seeing the work that went into building the visualizations in this article, feel free to visit this GitHub repository.