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MAGNA - Kennecott Utah Copper Corp. pledged Thursday to have independent experts double-check the safety of its old mine-waste impoundment, a 1.8-billion-ton pile that for years was judged to be vulnerable if a big earthquake hit.

Company President Andrew Harding announced the third-party review to kick off a meeting in the Magna Senior Center, where more than 100 area residents grilled Harding and Kennecott engineers about the tailings and other environmental concerns.

Harding also said he could understand why some residents distrust the copper giant in light of revelations this week that former executives hid for two decades that the tailings impoundment might breach in a large temblor and bury their homes in mud.

"You should be angry about it," said Harding, who took over the company four months ago. Addressing that distrust is exactly why a separate review is needed, he said.

Kennecott insists the impoundment is safe now. Mine waste now goes into a new, modern impoundment that cost about $536 million and took more than a decade to build. The old impoundment is inactive and being drained, although it may take 10 years longer before it meets the state's minimum-safety standards, because the pile at its center remains too saturated.

The idea of an independent review is supported by Les Youd, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, one-time chairman of the Utah Seismic Safety Commission and professor emeritus of engineering at Brigham Young University.

Youd pointed out that independent evaluations of seismic safety are typical. He cited U.S. Bureau of Reclamation dams as an example.

"That old impoundment should probably get that same kind of independent review," Youd said. "That's the way it's usually done."

Kennecott's new, north impoundment underwent that kind of assessment by experts from Virginia, Arizona and California.

But the old one, just to the south, despite its dubious safety, was not part of that review. Records detailing its problems and corrective steps that cost more than $13 million over the past 20 years are scarce in state and federal files. According to a 1997 investigation by a Kennecott attorney, the State Engineer's Office, which oversees dam safety, "colluded" with the company to keep those worrisome reports from public view.

In contrast, the state and federal agencies that scrutinized the new impoundment could pore over geotechnical and design details described in 21 thick volumes developed by the company over 15 years.

And, while Kennecott says it will provide state regulators with any reports they request, those regulators have indicated they were not aware the company failed to provide any significant reports about the old impoundment.

State Dam Safety Director David Marble attended Thursday's meeting and called the review "a very good idea."

"It just helps to verify that what they are saying is correct by having a review by an independent party," said Marble, whose office conducts on-site inspections of both impoundments every other year.

Details of how the Kennecott-funded independent review will be conducted, who will do it and when it will be done are all undetermined at this point. But Salt Lake County Councilman Michael Jensen, who lives in Magna, said he would organize the effort and involve residents in it.

Harding said it was not the company's role to direct the Utah Attorney General's Office to investigate the cover-up. But, he added, "Kennecott will work with" the office if asked.

"We will do our best to ensure it is truly an independent study people can rely upon," he said after the meeting. "At the end of the day, I need people to know what I know, that the impoundment is safe."


* STEVEN OBERBECK contributed to this story.

The tailings tale at a glance

* Engineers warn then-Kennecott President Frank Joklik in 1988 that the corner of a huge mine tailings pond could fail in a major earthquake, sending soupy sludge into Magna.

* Joklik orders a cover-up to avert ''panic and [law]suits''; the company starts buying homes in the subdivision, leaving them empty. State regulators agree to keep reports under wraps.

* In 1989, Kennecott starts a 30-year project to stabilize the old pond and build a new one, at a cost of about $550 million.

* Ray D. Gardner, Kennecott's chief legal officer in 1997, says the firm had a "legal and moral" duty to inform the public.

* Current President Andrew Harding, new to the job, doesn't try to explain past actions but apologizes ''for the history.''

* Kennecott announces Thursday that it will fund an independent engineering review of the tailings pond.

Next meeting

* On April 3, Kennecott representatives will be at the Magna Town Council meeting at 7 p.m. in the Chamber office, 9145 W. 2700 South, Magna.