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The United States may have gained its independence from England after winning the Revolutionary War, but today Utah finds itself locked in a David and Goliath struggle with a new version of the British Empire — London-based mining colossus Rio Tinto.

Our nation's 1872 mining law is a legal relic from the pick-and-shovel age, still being used by mining companies, even foreign ones, to lay claim to American public assets at 1872 prices.

With little environmental restraint or public health protection, it still allows miners to virtually steal public land, paying next to nothing to the government, poisoning the land and water and often leaving American taxpayers to clean up the mess.

Rio Tinto/Kennecott has exploited every word of this law while putting on a public facade proclaiming their environmental sensitivity and community loyalties.

Their true loyalties revealed themselves recently when Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon challenged the British Goliath, demanding public health protections before it begins swallowing up the south end of the Oquirrh Mountains. Rio Tinto refused.

The outcome of this fight will permanently shape or destroy the landscape at the heart of Utah more than any other single issue. But for residents of the valley's west side, this has also become up close and personal.

Most of the canyons on the east side of the Salt Lake Valley are protected, but Rose, Butterfield, and Yellow Fork are the last three canyons on the west side offering any hope of public accessibility because Rio Tinto has closed all others to public access. Now the company has filed mineral claims on those canyons and is threatening to mine all three.

Moreover, Rio Tinto is aggressively pursuing a 1,000-foot expansion of its open-pit Bingham mine to the south, and wants surface rights to add to its mineral rights in Rose Canyon Ranch. Rio Tinto seems determined to go wherever it wants, never mind the aesthetic, environmental and health consequences. The nearby residents feel like a cancer has started spreading throughout their community, and that could be literally and figuratively true.

Rio Tinto plans exploratory drilling in Rose Canyon Ranch at the 2,000-foot to 3,000-foot level. Some 20,000 people in unincorporated Salt Lake County, Herriman, Bluffdale, and Riverton get their water from an aquifer that would be penetrated by the drilling.

If Rio Tinto decides to mine in Rose Canyon, the aquifer could be at serious risk for contamination or depletion by the ensuing underground blasting, tunneling, and water diversion from shaft mining. There already is evidence that existing Kennecott activity is depleting our aquifer.

Furthermore, if the county sells the surface rights, our open-space "jewel" could end up like Butterfield Canyon, plastered with No Trespassing signs, or worse, obliterated by a new mountain of mining waste rock. Even without Rose Canyon, an expansion of the Bingham pit will add millions of tons and hundreds of feet to the south waste-rock piles seen from every corner of the Salt Lake Valley and even by space satellites.

But for every Salt Lake County resident, especially on the west side, this is much more than an issue of destroying natural beauty in our collective backyard. It means more dust pollution contaminated with heavy metals and more diesel emissions, both with extensive health consequences, including higher rates of cancer.

Mayor Corroon has courageously declared that the county will not sell the surface rights to Rio Tinto unless it agrees to a sensible plan for monitoring and mitigating the air and water pollution that will surely accompany any expanded mining activity — hardly an unreasonable position. Several County Council members have echoed their support.

But Rio Tinto refuses to cooperate, which speaks volumes about its commitment to the community versus maximizing profits at London headquarters ($5.3 billion last year).

Old-fashioned British Empire resource colonialism is alive and well in Utah. This modern-day English tyranny is worthy of some tea party righteous indignation. But while most Utah politicians are still hiding in the bushes, Corroon has picked up his musket and fired a "shot heard round the valley" and all the way to London.

The end result of this battle will answer these questions: "Who owns the Oquirrhs?" and "Who owns our air and water, British CEOs or Utah citizens?"

Randy L Crane is a member of a Herriman home owners group opposed to Kennecott's expansion.