The Uintah County Sheriff’s Department said its personnel arrested 13 people who allegedly broke into a fenced enclosure where developer U.S. Oil Sands is storing heavy equipment, including bulldozers and graders. Another six protesters were taken into custody when they allegedly refused to disperse from a roadway blockade that prevented law enforcement officers from leaving the property, according to a news release from Uintah County Undersheriff John Laursen. Authorities also alleged that signs at the site were vandalized and protesters blocked the access road by placing a culvert, rocks, sagebrush and lumber across it.
All 19 people — along with two others who were arrested inside the Uintah County Jail’s lobby — have since been released from custody, according to Utah Tar Sands Resistance spokesperson Jessica Lee.
They now could face a host of misdemeanor and felony charges that range from trespass on state trust lands to interference with an arresting officer and conspiracy to commit escape.
But despite the arrests, Lee said the group of “land defenders” remain committed to making sure that the Calgary, Alberta, company never moves forward with its plans to mine tar sands from the Tavaputs Plateau.
“There are people here in Utah who are dedicated to ensuring that it is never going to happen,” she told The Times-Independent.
Construction work on the first phase of the mine itself is not expected to begin until early next year, although contractors have been clearing and grading portions of a 213-acre site ahead of time.
Even so, U.S. Oil Sands CEO Cameron Todd said that safety around heavy equipment remains a concern, and he alleged that protesters unwisely allowed children to follow them into the fenced-off enclosure.
“When people bring their kids onto an active industrial site, that’s kind of a dumb thing to do, and we think they’re acting without a rational approach,” Todd said July 22.
Todd believes the protesters represent a small group of people who are “craving media attention,” and he said he deplores their willingness to break the law just to further their anti-development agenda.
“This is not unlike somebody breaking into your house,” he said.
The protesters, he said, refuse to recognize that his company’s plans are in compliance with all applicable laws, or that the project has survived legal challenges along the way.
“Clearly, you’ve got a group of people who don’t agree with the courts, the regulators, the government or the company, so they’ve taken matters into their own hands,” he said.
Although no contractors were at the project site at the time of the arrests, Todd believes authorities had to act to keep the situation from getting out of hand.
“The police expressed a fair amount of concern that you now have a group of people who have become a mob,” he said.
But Lee said the actions were the culmination of a weeklong peaceful protest involving about 80 people at a nearby permanent vigil site.
During that time, she said, they monitored activities at PR Spring, hiked through the area and held classes that covered everything from civil disobedience tactics to information about “climate justice.”
Lee said that protesters took action after they found out that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reportedly informed the company that a portion of the project may require tribal authorization because it is located in “Indian Country.”
If that’s the case, the project may now face additional permitting requirements, according to Lee.
Regardless of whether or not all the project lands are located on property owned by the state School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, Lee said that many people believe the land was stolen from the Ute tribe.
She compared the deputies’ response to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s tense standoff earlier this year with heavily armed supporters of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy.
“The aggression and the show of force that the Uintah sheriff directed at these protesters seems to be at odds with the approach that was taken at the Bundy ranch,” Lee said.
In that case, Lee noted that authorities did not hold armed militiamen accountable for their actions. In contrast, she alleged that the Uintah County Sheriff’s Department used intimidation tactics on peaceful protesters.
On the day of the arrests and earlier this week, deputies released trained K-9 dogs from their leashes, she said.
“It’s meant to scare people,” she said. “There’s no other purpose that it serves.”
An “independent journalist” who is affiliated with the movement was also injured on July 21, she said, and deputies “aggressively grabbed” several women at the scene. According to the Uintah County Sheriff’s Office, one person was taken to a nearby hospital for treatment of a sprained ankle before being booked into jail on Monday.
Laursen could not be reached for comment. But he told the Salt Lake Tribune that the only violence occurred when protesters struck three of his deputies.
Others physically resisted sheriff’s deputies who approached them and asked them to move out of the roadway, he said in the news release.
Six of the protesters who were arrested live in Salt Lake City, while the rest came to the area from New York City; Chicago; East Lansing, Michigan; Berkeley and Arcata, California; and Portland, Oregon, among other places.