Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — About three dozen protesters hit a street corner Monday in front of school trust lands offices to voice their opposition to a tar sands mining proposal under appeal before state regulators.
The groups, Utah Tar Sands Resistance and Earth First! staged their protest with tambourines, a few pet dogs and makeshift drums outside the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) offices to bring attention to their cause. The project would occupy leased school trust lands.
"We are trying to educate anybody we can," said Mark Purdy of Utah Tar Sands Resistance. "People walking, people driving by, we want them to be aware of this issue."
With a protester behind him banging steadily on a cooking pot for a drum, Greg Mack explained that dollars can out duel environmental ethics when it comes to such proposals.
"I think like anywhere, here in Utah people like to turn a blind eye to the destruction and just think about the money," he said.
In dispute are the efforts by U.S. Oil Sands to move ahead with its extraction of bitumen — the heaviest and thickest form of petroleum — via a chemical extraction process opponents assert would contaminate groundwater.
The company has obtained multiple permits from state agencies, including a groundwater discharge permit from state water quality regulators who determined sufficient environmental protections will be in place to ensure contamination isn't a risk.
The extraction method relies on an oil derived from citrus peels that is then combined with water. Purdy said the chemicals are cancer-causing, highly caustic and would inflict a legacy of contamination inappropriate for school trust lands.
"Destruction of education trust lands through tar sands mining is contrary to the mandate of this agency, which requires them to maintain the land for the long term," Purdy said.
The proposed mining operation would occupy a 213-acre site in the East Tavaputts Plateau straddling the borders of Uintah and Grand counties. An ore processing facility would accommodate up to 3,500 tons of ore per day in the production of bitumen. The extraction process would require 1.5 barrels to 2 barrels of water per barrel of bitumen produced.
State-issued permits do not allow for the runoff of any water from the mine pit or other processing areas, and regulators say dust pollution controls are in place. The company will have to post a reclamation bond of nearly $1.7 million before any work is allowed to begin at the site.
Another company, MCW Energy, is proposing a pilot project to test its proprietary solvent in the extraction of bitumen on 1,000 stockpiled tons of tar sands 3 miles west of Vernal in Uintah County.
The company will truck the solvents to be stored on-site in above ground storage tanks. The state's database of groundwater in the area indicates that what groundwater exists is of "poor quality" and far below the surface of the project, nearly a mile away. If MCW Energy proposes to go beyond the pilot project stage to actual production, however, the state mining division says additional protections for groundwater will have be instituted.
Opponents have appealed permits issued related to the PR Springs project, with hearings set for next month.
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