Utahns tar the tar sands

 

Mining of tar sands in Alberta Canada has left a landscape of razed boreal forest dotted with pools of toxic wastewater. It also produced 1.49 million barrels of crude oil last year – every day. Now, the first-ever commercial tar sands mine proposed in the United States is facing its second legal challenge from Western environmentalists.

Living Rivers, a Moab-based water quality group has appealed the approval of Earth Energy Resources' 62-acre mine by the Utah Department of Oil, Gas and Mining. Attorneys with Western Resource Advocates are representing Living Rivers in the appeal, scheduled for hearing December 8. This appeal follows an earlier challenge to the mine from the Sierra Club and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which resulted in a second permitting process.

Western Resource Advocates is concerned that the citrus-based chemical compound used to extract oil from the tar sands – the specific contents of which are protected as a trade secret by Earth Energy Resources – will make its way into groundwater. Unlike the tar sands in Canada, Utah's deposits are very dry, requiring the company to create an alternative to the usually water-intensive extraction process; thus the citrus-based solvent.  Earth Energy Resources has said that the state analyzed the chemicals in the solvent and determined them to be non-toxic.. But the advocacy group disputes that claim. "While they say their chemicals are non-toxic, it is strong enough to dissolve the pavement from underneath our feet." says Joro Walker, director of the group's Utah office. "The state has not done enough to make sure that this stuff, whatever it is, does not wind up in our water.”

The legal challenge is three-fold, citing concerns that the chemicals will leach out of processed sand, that rainwater runoff from piles of the used sand will carry those chemicals into the watershed, and that the reclamation process doesn't address how water in the area will be affected.

The Utah tar sands are the only known significant tar sands deposit in the United States.  This first tar sandsmine will, if the permit is approved, be excavated on state land held in trust, the development of which helps fund Utah's school system. The proposed mine would be at PR Springs, close to the border of Grand and Uinta counties, not far from the Colorado state line.

Once unprofitable, the rise in the price of oil has made tar sands mining economically viable. Tar sands oil resources in Utah (shown on the map) are estimated to total between 12 and 19 billion barrels.

Denver Nicks is a High Country News intern.

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