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Health, Science & Environment

Utah Supreme Court Weighs Tar Sands Project

Kent Miles, Courtesy of the Utah State Courts


The Utah Supreme Court is considering whether a Canadian company can begin mining tar sands in the Book Cliffs in eastern Utah. If approved it would be the nation’s first commercial tar sands operation.

John Weisheit is conservation director for the Moab-based environmental group Living Rivers. He says the Utah Division of Water Quality should have required the mine to get a pollution permit for its tar sands mine. Regulators insist there is no water to pollute. But Weisheit says the mine site drains into the Green, White and Colorado Rivers.

“All you have to do is get out of your car, put on a pack and hike 500 feet in any direction, and you’re going to find water,” he says. “In fact, the 150 feet they are going to excavate is the aquifer. They are going to take that away from the ecosystem. They are going to take away the aspens, the tree cover, the soil cover that took millennia to get there in the first place.”

The court’s five justices heard oral arguments from Weisheit’s group on Tuesday. They also questioned attorneys representing state water quality regulators and U.S. Oil Sands, the company that has spent a decade and $40 million to prepare the 213-acre tar sands site. U.S. Oil Sands vice president Barclay E. Cuthbert says the company is using low-impact approaches, including a citrus solvent.

“We’re able to minimize our land impact, because we don’t have those large tailings ponds,” says Cuthbert. “We recover our water right away so that we use it while it’s still warm. We’re able to start our reclamation very quickly, so again you’re minimizing your land footprint. And it’s a very efficient extraction process so were getting as much of that bitumen from the sand that we can, because it’s in our interest to do so.”

The Supreme Court could take months to decide the case. They’ll be looking at whether the Division of Water Quality mis-stepped. They’ll also be determining whether Living Rivers waited too long to fight the state's decision

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