Demonstrators block road at site of proposed tar sands mine in Book Cliffs
by Jeff Richards
Contributing Writer
Aug 01, 2013 | 10317 views | 0 0 comments | 110 110 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Environmental activists stage a protest that halts mining operations and road construction in the Book Cliffs at a site where a Canadian company plans to build the first U.S. tar sands mine. Photo by Steve Liptay
Environmental activists stage a protest that halts mining operations and road construction in the Book Cliffs at a site where a Canadian company plans to build the first U.S. tar sands mine. Photo by Steve Liptay
Dozens of demonstrators disrupted road construction and stopped operations on Monday, July 29 at the site of a proposed tar sands mine in the Book Cliffs range of southeastern Utah.

“The proposed tar sands and oil shale mines in Utah threaten nearly 40 million people who rely on the precious Colorado River System for their life and livelihood,” said Emily Stock of Moab, a seventh-generation Utahn and an organizer with the group Canyon Country Rising Tide, which opposes oil and tar sands development.

“The devastating consequence of dirty energy extraction knows no borders, and we stand together to protect and defend the rights of all communities, human and non-human,” Stock said.

The demonstrators joined members of indigenous tribes from the Four Corners region and others from across the country for a water ceremony inside the mine site on the East Tavaputs Plateau, according to a news release issued by the group. After the ceremony, some of the protesters continued to stop work at the mine site while others halted road construction by surrounding heavy machinery with banners with slogans such as “Respect Existence or Expect Resistance” and “Tar Sands Wreck Our Lands.”

Stock said in an interview this week that nearly 100 people were involved in the demonstration, which made headlines in the Salt Lake Tribune and was covered by the KSL television news station in Salt Lake City.

Some of the protesters reportedly duct-taped or chained themselves to heavy machinery, causing work on the road to be halted for the day. Uintah County Sheriff’s deputies responded to the scene, but no arrests were made, the sheriff’s office said.

U.S. Oil Sands, Inc., a corporation based in Alberta, Canada, has obtained the necessary permits and mineral leases to mine for tar sands in the area, company officials said.

Cameron Todd, the CEO of U.S. Oil Sands, said in a telephone interview that the company first obtained regulatory approvals for the project back in 2005, but the work is still in pre-production stages and the company will not begin actual operations until sometime next year. He said that while protest activities would have “minimal” impact on the project, the company is still concerned about safety.

“We are very concerned about the safety of the people in the area, both the workers and the members of the public,” Todd said.

He said company officials are closely monitoring the situation.

“We respect their right to exercise free speech. We would hope they would respect private property and governmental decisions,” Todd said, noting that virtually every aspect of the project, including the mining leases and the road upgrades, has been subject to public input. 

Todd said the mining operation is designed to extract low-grade oil from sand and clay and replace it in the ground without leaving a large hole or creating a tailings pile. The company’s process uses a “non-toxic, citrus-based, biodegradable solvent” to help extract the oil from the soil, he said.

Although there are not yet any large-scale tar sands mining operations in the United States, tar sands from other mining operations in Canada are currently being refined in Salt Lake City by Chevron. A similar public protest was staged at that refinery in March.

Other environmental groups, such as the Moab-based Living Rivers, have sought to block the mining of tar sands on the Colorado Plateau by filing lawsuits, saying the operations would harm the environment and damage the watershed.

According to Canyon Country Rising Tide’s news release, many of the demonstrators had taken part in a week-long “action camp” on non-violent civil disobedience prior to Monday’s action.

“Impacted communities are banding together to stop Utah’s development of tar sands and oil shale. We stand in solidarity because we know that marginalized communities at points of extraction, transportation, and refining will suffer the most from climate change and dirty energy extraction,” group member Camila Apaza-Mamani was quoted as saying in the news release.

Organizers called the alliance of groups involved in the protest “historic.”

“The network of groups and individuals taking action today in Utah have come together in an alliance that is historically unprecedented for this region,” said Lauren Wood, a Green River outfitter who supported in the protest. “We join with others around the world, forming a coordinated response to these threats to our air, water, land, communities and to the larger climate impacts of this dirty energy development model.”

U.S. Oil Sands is leasing the Book Cliffs site, known as P.R. Springs, from Utah’s School amd Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), a state agency tasked with administering state lands for the benefit of public institutions such as schools.

“Tar sands strip mining would be worst thing for the state, this country and the world,” Stock said. “Although SITLA professes to care about the children, it consistently puts short-term economic gain over the long-term health of the very children it professes to benefit.”

She said the tar sands project will significantly damage the environment for generations to come.

“There are no jobs on a dead planet. We need heroes, not puppets of corporate interest who steal from current and future generations to line the pockets of a greedy few, at the expense of our communities and our environment,” added Stock.

SITLA officials pointed out that the state Department of Environmental Quality and other state agencies have found legal challenges to the project to be “groundless.”

“SITLA’s legislative mandate is to earn revenue from trust lands, not in the short term, but in perpetuity for Utah’s schools and other institutions,” SITLA public information officer Deena Loyla said. “We too share the concern for public health, and understand earlier legal challenges to this project’s environmental and reclamation plans were deemed groundless by a state administrative law judge. We trust in the Department of Environmental Quality and other state regulatory agencies responsible for protecting the state’s resources.”

Stock said she and other members of the groups protesting the tar sands project have vowed to continue their efforts and are planning to conduct future actions to stop tar sands mining and other so-called “dirty energy projects” throughout the region.

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