Geoff Liesik, Deseret News Archives
Activists from a number of environmental and social justice on July 29, 2013, in southern Uintah County.

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the environmental advocacy group Living Rivers waited too long to bring a legal challenge to a state permit issued for a tar sands mining operation in eastern Utah.

The ruling upholds a 2011 modification made to a groundwater discharge permit issued by the Utah Division of Water Quality.

Living Rivers did not challenge the initial permit issued in 2008, and justices ruled any objection should have been brought at that point.

"The timeliness of the Living Rivers' petition, on the other hand, is a question of jurisdictional significance," the justices said. "In so holding, we underscore the significance of time limits on administrative petitions for review. Such time limits are not just arbitrary cutoffs."

The discharge permit was granted to U.S. Oil Sands after the division concluded the mining operation would have a "minimal" impact on groundwater quality in the Uintah Basin.

After permit modifications were granted in 2011, Living Rivers brought a legal challenge, arguing the flawed conclusions of the division that groundwater resources were not sufficient enough to be at risk.

But the justices noted the heart of the group's arguments did not center on the modifications brought in 2011 but the basis for the actual permit issued in 2008 — which had already run its course for a chance at appeal.

Justices said Living Rivers built a challenge around core elements of the initial permit, such as the administrative definition of "groundwater" and the factual determination of a lack of groundwater at the U.S. Oil Sands site.

Those arguments, the court emphasized, were brought too late.

"When U.S. Oil Sands' discharge permit became final in 2008, it was entitled to move forward with its development plans in reliance on the conclusive finality of the secretary's decision and on the law's bar on collateral attacks. Living Rivers' petition would reopen and upset that reliance interest."

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