SALT LAKE CITY — An administrative law judge ruled that Utah water quality regulators acted appropriately when they said the operation of the nation's first large-scale oil sands mine would have minimal impact on groundwater because so little exists in the area.
The ruling this week by Judge Sandra Allen is a setback for environmental groups that appealed the state Division of Water Quality's finding that U.S. Oil Sands, from Calgary, Canada, does not need to obtain a groundwater discharge permit.
Planned on an initial site of 213 acres of school trusts property straddling Uintah and Grand counties, the PR Springs Mine would extract bitumen, a thick, tar-like substance, and refine it into oil.
The company has said it plans to use a nontoxic, citrus-based oil to extract the bitumen, most of which will be recovered and recycled.
In the decision to not require a groundwater discharge permit, Utah regulators pointed to the lack of impoundments or process-water ponds on site, the recovery and recycling of water used in extraction and the fact that processed tailings will not be "free draining."
In addition, hydrological tests showed the general absence of groundwater to a depth of between 1,500 feet and 2,000 feet. Allen said the most compelling evidence demonstrating the absence of groundwater was based on 180 holes drilled in and around the proposed mine site of up to 305 feet in depth — more than twice the depth at which U.S. Oil Sands proposes to mine.
"The drilling was conducted, in part, to determine the presence or absence of groundwater," Allen's decision states. "No groundwater was encountered, and no sign of it was recorded."
Although environmental groups opposed to the project brought in testimony in a hearing to discount the drilling program's evidence, Allen noted that the testimony was "ineffectual" and failed to overcome the data presented.
U.S. Oil Sands CEO Cameron Todd said Wednesday the wells sunk at the site and surrounding area are the most that have ever been done in an oil sands region, demonstrating "conclusively" that the mine and its operations would have little, if any, impact to potential groundwater resources.
Both Living Rivers and Western Resource Advocates have vigorously contested the proposed mining operation on the Colorado Plateau, arguing that state regulators acted contrary to law by failing to require a permit and protect any groundwater, regardless of how much.
Attorney Rob Duboc said the judge's decision is disappointing.
"We thought we provided ample evidence of groundwater in the area of the mine and also presented evidence that groundwater would be impacted by the process," Duboc said.
Allen's recommendation will now be forwarded to members of the Utah Water Quality Board to act on in September. The board can either approve or reject the recommendation and will consider written and oral comments in its deliberations.
Duboc said if the board sides with Allen's recommendation, it is likely an appeal will be taken to district court.
"We are a long way from this conversation being complete," he said
Todd said the mine could begin operations in late 2013.