VERNAL — Twenty-one people from 10 states were arrested Monday during a protest that "became physical" at a controversial tar sands mine in northeastern Utah, according to the Uintah County Sheriff's Office.
Those arrested listed addresses in Utah, Arizona, California, Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, New York, North Dakota, Oregon and Wisconsin, Uintah County Undersheriff John Laursen said Tuesday.
They were booked for investigation of offenses that ranged from trespassing on state School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration land and stopping mining operations to felony riot and conspiracy to commit escape, the undersheriff said.
The first arrests were made about 10:30 a.m. Monday, more than four hours after 12 protesters climbed an 8-foot-tall, chain-link fence topped with barbed wire and entered land leased to U.S. Oil Sands by SITLA, authorities said. Five of those individuals chained themselves to heavy equipment inside the fenced area, deputies said.
Uintah County Sheriff Jeff Merrell said deputies used a pair of bolt cutters, a wrench, pliers and a pocket knife to remove the chains and arrested the 12 protesters, including one who had secured himself to a gate in the fence.
"It became physical," Merrell acknowledged, noting that about 30 protesters outside the fenced area were told to leave the mine site or face arrest as well. All but one of followed that order, the sheriff said, and was arrested.
When deputies tried to leave the site with those who had been taken into custody, six protesters sat down on Seep Ridge Road to block their way and "started to physically resist the officers," Laursen said.
One deputy pulled his Taser after he was punched in the head, Laursen said. The Taser did not have a projectile cartridge attached, the undersheriff said. It remained unclear Tuesday whether anyone received a "dry stun" when the deputy cycled the weapon while holding it above his head, Laursen said.
The six protesters blocking the road were arrested. Two other protesters were arrested outside the Uintah County Jail after they were identified as suspects in the effort to block Seep Ridge Road, authorities said.
Jessica Lee, spokeswoman for Utah Tar Sands Resistance, said deputies treated protesters so roughly during the arrests that it amounted to police brutality.
"This is a clear example of the Uintah County sheriff escalating things," Lee said, noting that protesters were "grabbed in an aggressive manner" and some were "thrown to the ground."
Lee also criticized the frequent presence of police K-9s at the mine site as people began to gather there over the past week for a peaceful protest. She said at least one K-9 handler let his dog off the leash during Monday's arrests.
"Having a dog off-leash is a blatant threat against protesters," Lee said.
When asked Tuesday if a police K-9 had been deployed against any of the protestors, Sheriff Merrell replied: "Absolutely not."
One protester was taken to Ashley Regional Medical Center in Vernal before being booked into jail. The man was treated for a severely sprained ankle that he suffered when he tripped over sagebrush while running from a sheriff's sergeant, Laursen said. Any other arrestees who may have had medical issues were allowed see a registered nurse at the jail, the undersheriff said.
Laursen identified the arrestees as: Elizabeth Arce, Jesse Jordan Fruhwirth, Laura Gottesdiener, Daniel Joseph Gruppo, Melinda Hatch, Eliana Correa-Hernandez, Camila Allison Ibanez, Anna Dorothy Leopold, Melody Brianna Leppard, Valerie Montana Love, Damien Thomas Luzzo, Maribel Alejandra Mercado, Samuel Ralph Neubauer, Belmont T. Pinger, Victor Enrique Puertas, Eric Michael Recchia, Ashlyn Danielle Ruga, Lorenzo Daniel Serna, Tabitha Skervin, Cynthia Francis Spoon and Lionel P. Trepanier.
Monday's protest at the 213-acre U.S. Oil Sands mine site more than an hour south of Vernal was not the first "direct action" by environmental groups opposed to the nation's first commercial development of tar sands.
In July 2013, protesters concerned that the proposed mine would pollute the air and water shut down paving work on the nearby Seep Ridge Road by locking themselves to heavy equipment and blocking the road for a day. That protest, which took place on a public road, ended without any arrests.
Lee said Monday's protest, and geographic diversity of those involved, shows that people around the country are willing to stand against the U.S. Oil Sands project, which has obtained all state permits required to begin operation.
"The public outcry and pushback against this project will not stop. The fight to end this project will not stop," Lee said.
Officials with U.S. Oil Sands have said that 200 exploratory wells show 190 million barrels of oil can be successfully mined at the site. The company holds leases to nearly 6,000 acres of school trust lands property in eastern Utah.
Some of that property had traditionally been Ute land that environmentalists say was "stolen from the tribe." John Andrews, chief general counsel for SITLA, confirmed that part of the property is within the boundaries of the historic Uncompahgre Indian Reservation.
"As such, they are arguably within (the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's) regulatory jurisdiction even though not in tribal ownership," Andrews wrote in an email.
EPA spokesman Rich Mylott confirmed Tuesday that the agency has requested a meeting with U.S. Oil Sands to learn more about its Uintah County project.
"Our request is not focused on a specific permitting process," Mylott wrote in an email to the Deseret News. "It is simply intended to develop a better understanding of the overall project and to ensure proposed activities are consistent with any potentially applicable federal requirements, particularly any requirements related to EPA’s roles and responsibilities on tribal lands."
U.S. Oil Sands CEO Cameron Todd said company officials look forward to meeting with federal regulators to discuss what he called "one of most exhaustively reviewed projects" in Utah. Those who have protested the mine are "passionate" but "quite uniformed," he said.
"My goal is to develop not just one project but future projects as well," Todd said. "This is the most environmentally responsible project ever conceived in oil shale development.
"I can't fabricate an approach that doesn't do what we advertise and hope to get additional approvals," he added.
U.S. Oil Sands frequently solicits input from scientists, regulators and environmental activists looking for "a better way" to extract tar sands, Call said.
"(The environmental activists) are not interested in doing it better," he said. "They don't want to do it at all. They want to stop development, not just of this mine, but all development."
Crews are currently doing site preparation work at the mine. U.S. Oil Sands expects to begin mining operations by the end of 2015.
Email: [email protected], Twitter: GeoffLiesik