US Magnesium sits on the South West shore of the Great Salt Lake in Tooele County. Since 1972 the facility has harvested brine from the Great Salt Lake to produce magnesium, alloy magnesium, and chlorine. As with most extractive industries, there is a lot of waste that can be toxic for humans, animals and ecosystems. The way waste is disposed and stored affects more than just the production facility and has a far-reaching impact.
Citizens have kept their eyes on the magnesium production facility for years. Known in the 90’s as Magcorp, the facility had a reputation for being the nation’s worst air polluter for two years in a row. Citizens Against Chlorine Contamination (CACC) was formed as an aggregate of several interested community groups including the Sierra Club and FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake. In July of 1996, they met with Utah’s Air Quality Board and raised concerns about the role of Magcorp’s emissions on Salt Lake City’s air quality. After a federal lawsuit against Magcorp, they filed for bankruptcy protection. The owners of the facility re-tooled and reduced emissions and then renamed and rebranded as US Magnesium in 2002.
In the fall of 2008 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with support from the Utah Department of Environmental Quality (UDEQ), proposed listing the US Magnesium facility and its surrounding areas of waste disposal as a national priority for clean up. The National Priorities Listing (NPL) and the subsequent Superfund process for cleaning up a polluted site can take many years. Because of the facility’s close proximity to Great Salt Lake, FRIENDS and its members have paid close attention to developments at the site.
Now, with support from the EPA, FRIENDS is hiring a Technical Advisor to assist with communicating the technical details of the cleanup and the complex processes to our community and stakeholders. With a Technical Ad-visor, the community can also participate in the decision-making process. The US Magnesium superfund clean up process has wide-reaching impact. Lake levels, while currently low, have dramatic historic fluctuations and surface water migration pathways may exist. Groundwater migration pathways may exist, with plumes that could impact local drinking water as well as the Great Salt Lake. Bird and wildlife activity have also been documented at the facility near the highly acidic wastewater ponds that have pH levels resembling battery acid. There are also significant concerns for soils and sediments in the area. And in Salt Lake City, air-shed issues re-main a perennial concern.
Finally, there are considerable health risks for facility workers with exposure. So, what kinds of toxins are we talking about? The list is long and it includes: Polychlorinated Biphenyls, chlorine, arse-nic, hydrogen chloride, hexachlorobenzene, chlorodibenzo-furans (CDFs), chlorinated dibenzopdioxins (CDDs), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Most of these toxins do not break down in the environment very easily and may remain in place for long periods of time. Additionally, some may travel long distances by air, significantly impacting our airshed. And once in water, some settle in bottom sediments, attach to organic particles or are taken up by organisms that live in the water. To date, the Superfund process is still in the early phases. After being listed on the NPL, the EPA began their Remedial Investigation and Feasibility Study to provide opportunities for community involvement, to determine the boundaries and extent of contamination, to assess technologies for measurement and treatment, and finally, to evaluate the costs for clean up. This part of the process, already a few years old, could still take several years to complete.