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Utah High Court Clears Way for Tar Sands Mine

U.S. Oil Sands


The nation’s first tar sands mine has been planned for the wild Book Cliffs in eastern Utah. But was stuck in legal limbo until a ruling Tuesday from the Utah Supreme Court.

The justices opted against allowing an environmental group to challenge a state water pollution permit for the project.

“We’ve made plans this year to commence with construction out at the site,” said Barclay Cuthbert, vice president for operations at U.S. Oil Sands Inc.

“We’re starting our initial site preparation work, the grading and whatnot that we need for the facility and starting to look at foundations and some of the subsurface work that’s required to prepare for things, we’re still looking at a startup in late 2015.”

The mine is being built on 213 acres in Uintah County. The company’s already spent $40 million and more than a decade preparing to bring the mine online. Plans are to use a citrus-based chemical in processing the thick, tarry oil.

State water-quality regulators decided in 2008 and 2011 that the project poses negligible threat to the groundwater. But Living Rivers disagrees.

John Weisheit, the environmental group’s co-founder, sees some room for interpretation in the court’s ruling Tuesday.

“I guess what you could say is it’s not over with yet,” he said. “We’ll have to work this out in the future and who knows how long that will take and whether it will end up going back to the court system.”

Weisheit says he visited the PR Spring area recently and saw the springs running. His group contends, with the confluence of the White, Green and Colorado rivers nearby, mining puts the area’s water at risk.

A group of protestors has been camping near the mine site for weeks.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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