Conflict heats up over tar sands mining in Utah

Published: Monday, Sept. 10 2012 5:21 p.m. MDT

This June 25, 2008 photo shows an aerial view just north of Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, where the world's largest oil companies are building massive open pit mines to get at the oil sands. A proposed tar sands mine on Utah's eastern Uinta basin, that would be the first commercial project of its kind in the U.S., has environmentalists concerned that shortsightedness may trump reason.

Associated Press

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SALT LAKE CITY — Critics passionately opposed to energy projects in the Uintah Basin have yet to form long human chains or lock themselves to heavy equipment to stall work, but the landowner isn't taking any chances.

The School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration — owner of two potential oil shale mining sites in Utah — served notice Monday that any disruption or "field trips" to property where active or experimental drilling permits have been issued will result in criminal penalties.

A growing anti-tar sands movement is galvanizing protests on the national front lines over large projects like the Keystone LX pipeline and is gaining momentum in Utah because of pending projects in the state's oil rich zone.

Groups that included the Utah Tar Sands Resistance and Peaceful Uprising visited the site of PR Spring mine, straddling the borders of Uintah and Grand counties, a few weeks ago and plan future visits in a public education campaign.

Kevin Carter, executive director of the School and Institutional Trusts Lands Administration, which owns the property and is leasing it for resource extraction, said security officers at the PR Spring site spotted trespassers at the mining site. He said that same weekend, Red Leaf Resources in Uintah County noted evidence of a break-in at its mine.

Carter said Red Leaf had its open pit exposed and a tumble into it could have been fatal.

"There are areas of these sites that are not safe," Carter said. "Common sense would dictate to stay out of areas where there are big holes."

Carter said that active mineral development sites often include heavy equipment activity, steep or vertical slopes and high walls, and other potential hazards not always apparent.

The closure order issued Monday and effective immediately states that the public cannot enter areas with active mine permits or oil and gas permits without the permission of the operator.

Public and dramatic protests over oil shale mining activity are escalating and have stopped work at construction sites. Last week, a group of activists locked themselves to heavy equipment in Saltillo, Texas, in a campaign of civil disobedience targeting the Transcanada pipeline.

Several different activist groups are launching a dual-pronged attack to draw attention to their cause: targeting high-profile, large-scale projects and organizing sit-ins in Washington and by building a base of locally driven and regional members working to defeat mines closer to home.

Opposition to tar sands mining in Utah took on a new urgency in late August after an administrative law judge said U.S. Oil Sands, the operator of the PR Springs Mine, did not need to obtain a groundwater discharge permit for its operation because hydrological sampling showed a lack of groundwater resources in the area.

That decision removes one regulatory hurdle to what could be the first oil shale mining operation in the country. Opponents such as Living Rivers plan to launch a legal challenge to the decision.

Locally, opponents have staged protests at school trust lands offices in Salt Lake City and made repeated pitches to the agency's board about the dangers of tar sands mining.

Opponents also plan to hold "teach ins" that include slide shows and PowerPoint presentations on proposed oil shale mining projects in Utah — one 7 p.m. Wednesday and another 2 p.m. Sept. 22 at the Salt Lake City Main Library.

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16

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