Why we risked getting arrested in Utah

 

Twenty-five people who took direct action last summer to stop a tar sands strip mine on Utah’s East Tavaputs Plateau accepted plea deals on Jan. 25 to avoid more serious charges such as “felony riot.” We took the risk of going to prison in the first place because we felt we’d become the last line of defense against the new mine; we believed we had a moral responsibility to take action.

These are the kinds of things we did: On July 22, 80 protesters met before dawn to enter the mine’s machinery yard. Linking arms, some blockaded a gate, while others locked themselves to equipment. Later, another group blockaded the only road the police could use to haul protesters off to jail. Twenty-one people were arrested.

 

My own arrest took place after one of the smaller work stoppages that continued throughout the summer. On Sept. 23, a group of us wearing chipmunk masks (we try to keep our sense of humor) took over the worksite, forcing numerous machines off the field for part of the afternoon.

U.S. Oil Sands, based in Calgary, Canada, had been constructing its processing facility at this site, planning to begin production in late 2015. The company aims to extract low-grade fuel out of oil-rich rock, which requires massive amounts of energy and water. The process also pollutes nearby communities around mines and refineries, as well as those downriver.

The grassroots groups Utah Tar Sands Resistance, Peaceful Uprising and Canyon Country Rising Tide all decided they had to do something to shut the mining down. This decision did not come easily. For several years, members have tried to rouse opposition to tar sands mining through rallies, street theater and presentations at agency meetings. We repeatedly asked our government to uphold human rights over corporate rights. We got nowhere. For example, Moab-based Living Rivers launched a legal challenge to tar sands mining in 2011. Its case went to the Utah Supreme Court, which dismissed the group’s appeal on a technicality on June 24, 2014. Twelve days earlier, the EPA had informed U.S. Oil Sands that it needed additional permitting to continue operations because its facility sits on traditional Uintah and Ouray Ute land. We watched as the company continued bulldozing while police stood guard. To us, it was becoming ever clearer that we had a moral imperative to step in.

Though we came to Utah from various places, we were drawn to the fight against tar sands mining for similar reasons. Like me, many were Utah residents taking part in a summer-long encampment in the site slated for mining. We’d watched the scar of the company’s test pit grow to a 10-acre wasteland that threatened to claim 32,000 acres of lush canyons. We lived among a heartbreakingly diverse range of wildlife — black bears, turkeys, even the occasional buffalo or cougar. At night, hearing coyotes howling beneath the brightest stars I’ve ever seen, I felt my roots sinking into the earth. I believe that this place, these animals, these streams flowing to the Colorado River, have a right to exist that trumps anyone’s right to make a quick buck.

In July, Camila Ibanez, a young and energetic migrant-rights organizer who grew up in Utah and now lives in New York City, joined us. She emphasized how this struggle affects migrant rights, because by seizing the Colorado River’s flow, industry robs people in Mexico of their traditional livelihoods on the land. Other participants from indigenous communities stressed that tar sands mining could pollute water down the Colorado. This has been happening to a First Nations community downstream from the Canadian tar sands, increasing their rate of contracting rare cancers.

A group of college students came from California in July, believing tar sands mining would push our world over the edge of climate collapse. Middle-age folks, including Lionel Trepanier of Utah, told how they decided to act against tar sands mining in order to leave their grandchildren with a fighting chance for a livable future.

Despite our divergent backgrounds, we were united by the belief that when legal solutions fail, taking risks of imprisonment through direct action is a necessary step toward justice. Making personal sacrifices then gives others the gumption to do the same. So, despite the attempts to intimidate us with trumped-up felony charges, when U.S. Oil Sands returns to work this spring, you can bet we’ll be there, too.

Melanie Jae Martin is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. She has organized with Utah Tar Sands Resistance and Peaceful Uprising for several years, and lives in Utah.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.