UPDATE: Controversial Southwest Utah Frac Sand Mine Moves Forward
Updated 3:00 p.m. MDT 7/11/19
A controversial frac sand mine proposed in Southwest Utah is poised to move forward after local officials gave the go-ahead this week on the sale of water and a conditional use permit.
The Kane County Planning Commission voted Wednesday night to issue the permit to Southern Red Sands, LLC, which has plans to operate the mine just north of Kanab.
The permit listed 48 conditions the company must follow to minimize the impact of the proposed mine on the county. The process is a standard procedure for new works on county lands.
However, according to Kane County attorney Rob Van Dyke, the site is ultimately outside of county jurisdiction, as the operation would be located on land managed by School and Institutional Trust Land Administration, or SITLA.
The county’s conditions will be passed onto SITLA for further review.
The conditional approval passed Tuesday hinges on the Kanab city attorney’s review of potential liability if problems arise from the project, which would mine and process sand across a 55-acre area roughly 10 miles north of the city.
Frac sand is a naturally occurring “proppant” used to hold open fissures created by hydraulic fracturing operations in oil and gas extraction. The company says it plans to ship the sand for use in the Uinta basin.
Hundreds of residents attended the four-hour hearing and expressed concerns that city officials had not gathered sufficient information about how the project would affect the town’s water supply or alter the area’s landscapes.
Despite the pushback, city officials say the project is poised to move forward.
“Regardless of what we do here tonight, this project will go forth,” Kanab Mayor Robert Houston told the crowd before the vote. “The ultimate decision will be made by the State Engineer.”
The operation is being proposed by Southern Red Sands, LLC, a start-up mining company based in Salt Lake City. The company owns over 500 other mining claims across 12,000 acres near the proposed site, according to The Diggings, an online database of past and current mining claims.
Southern Red Sands officials estimate that the project would create as many as 40 jobs, though some will be shift work and technical positions. Trucking will be outsourced. The company has already leased the potential mine site — a 640-acre property south of Highway 89, which includes a feature known as “Red Knoll.” The land is currently managed by the School and Institutional Trust Land Administration, or SITLA, an independent agency that manages state trust lands to generate revenue for schools, universities and hospitals.
The first public discussion of a water service agreement between Kanab and Southern Red Sands, LLC took place at the Kanab City Council meeting on February 12, 2019.
Under the water agreement approved Tuesday night, Kanab City will sell the company 600 acre-feet of water per year, one-third more than the project’s estimated use of 400 acre-feet per year. The company has a separate agreement in place with the Kane County Water Conservancy District for an additional 600 acre-feet per year.
The City Council voted to amend the service agreement so that liability will be placed or shared with the company if problems arise from the operation. The company cannot be held liable as the current agreement stands.
Critics voiced concerns that the mine could deplete the aquifer, increase truck traffic, hurt tourism, damage the area’s aesthetic beauty and could eventually expand beyond is current scope based on the company’s nearby holdings.
Bart Battista, a retired Marine Corps officer who was previously the lead environmental planner for Camp Pendleton, one of the largest Marine Corps bases in the United States, said that the mine cannot move forward without two critical components: a well, which must be approved by the state engineer, and an access road, which requires approval from the Bureau of Land Management.
“For some reason the city is being blind to that and just thinks that they don’t have a choice and that they can’t influence this process,” he said. “And I believe the county thinks the same way.”
Battista currently manages the facilities at Best Friends Animal Society, a no-kill animal sanctuary which is the largest adjacent property owner to the proposed mining site.
City officials said they believe the city has sufficient water to make the sale and that selling its water is the best way to maintain a voice in the project moving forward.
David Fuchs is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southwest Bureau in St. George.
Correction 5:52 p.m. 7/19/19: A previous version of this story indicated dozens of residents attended the Kanab City Council meeting on June 9. Dozens of residents spoke during the public comment period but hundreds attended the meeting.