Geoff Liesik, Deseret News
Chris Wilde, director of business development for Utah Phosphate Co., left, talks with Uintah County residents Tuesday, April 3, 2012, about the company's preliminary plans to develop two leases near Ashley Spring, the primary source of drinking water for an estimated 10,000 residents in Vernal and the surrounding communities.

VERNAL — Officials with Utah Phosphate Co. held an open house Tuesday that drew more than 200 Uintah County residents, and it didn't take long for the fireworks to begin.

"I want to know where you live and where your kids go to school, because I want to put a toxic waste dump next to your house," one man told Paul Poister, the company's government relations manager.

"This is personal," the man added.

Utah Phosphate, a subsidiary of the Canadian firm Agrium Inc., isn't looking to build a toxic waste dump in the county. Company officials say they just want to study whether it's feasible to develop two mining leases on property owned by the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration near the base of Taylor Mountain northwest of Vernal. 

"(The project) is in the very preliminary stages," said Chris Wilde, director of business development for Utah Phosphate. "We just bought the leases. The sale only closed just barely a month ago." Phosphate is processed into elemental phosphorous, which is used in a variety of products such as lawn fertilizer, toothpaste and soda pop.

Those leases, however, are located on parcels that sandwich Ashley Spring, which is why area residents and water managers are concerned about the proposed mine.

"It is our sole source of water for our treatment plant, which is at the mouth of Ashley Gorge," said David Hatch, district manager of the Ashley Valley Water and Sewer Improvement District.

"It is also the source for the Central Utah (Water Conservancy District's treatment) plant that serves Vernal," Hatch said. "So this spring serves all of the valley, even Jensen and Maeser."

Chris Finlinson, a spokeswoman with the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, said the district had representatives at the open house and is tracking the proposal carefully.

"We are aware and will be watching it," she said. "Of course water quality is always our first concern."

The water in the spring comes from Dry Fork Creek. It sinks into a subterranean limestone formation, and resurfaces in Ashley Gorge. Because phosphate mining typically involves blasting, Hatch said conducting such operations near the spring could damage the limestone formation and compromise the water supply for about 10,000 people.

"Something could collapse in there and make the spring dry up," Hatch said. "The blasting could create fissures where anything from the surface from the mining could run down and into the aquifer the water transfers to."

If it's built, the mine would literally be in Arlene Thomson's backyard. Her property borders one of the leased areas.

"They say they wouldn't be loud explosions, but what is said and what is done are two different things," she said. "I'm afraid that continuous blasting will affect the water."

Thomson is also concerned that the explosions might damage Fremont Indian petroglyphs in neighboring Dry Fork Canyon, and that mining operations will limit access to public land on Taylor Mountain.

"And there would be grazing rights that would be impacted," she said. "I think there's more to lose here than there is to gain."

But Wilde said many of the fears expressed by community members are based on "assumptions that may or may not be correct."

"Some of the things I've heard today were probably exaggerations," he said. "It's our job to communicate to the people what will actually happen if the mine goes ahead."

The company plans to drill 10 to 15 test holes on the leased property by mid-summer to help determine the quality of the phosphate reserves. It promised to assess any drilling done be previous leaseholders and remediate those areas according to state and company standards.

Even if the company determines that the sites are financially and environmentally viable for development, Wilde said mining wouldn't actually occur until "well into the next decade."

"It's a rather long process and it's a staged process," he said. "At each stage we have to look at it and say does it make sense, is it viable and is it going to proceed."

"Consultation with the community is a very important part of this process," he added.

But Thomson said regardless what Utah Phosphate's site surveys show, if the company tries to open a mine near Ashley Spring, "they will definitely have a fight on their hands."

Contributing: Amy Joi O'Donoghue

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