Utah gave the go-ahead on Wednesday for Alberta-based US Oil Sands Inc. to begin the first commercial tar sands project in the U.S..
The 9-2 decision made by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s Water Quality Board lets the project move forward without a water pollution discharge permit.
The decision dismisses an appeal from Moab-based Living Rivers, which has been fighting the project, arguing it would contaminate groundwater and destroy ecosystems.
Judy Fahys reports for the Salt Lake Tribune on how the project was allowed to go forward without the water pollution discharge permit:
Water Quality Division Director Walt Baker signed off on the proposal last year without requiring a groundwater-pollution permit. Basically, he concluded that there is no groundwater to pollute in the project site, around 213 acres in the arid high country between Vernal and Moab.
In August, Administrative Law Judge Sandra Allen agreed with Baker, and the water-quality board reviewed that conclusion on Wednesday. Darrell H. Mensel, representing recreation, and Merritt K. Frey, representing wildlife and the environment, both expressed concern about whether the permit met the strict definition of state law on groundwater, and they both voted against the administrative law judge’s finding.
But other members agreed that Living Rivers had not offered proof that the project poses any threat to groundwater.
John Weisheit, longtime conservation director of Living Rivers & Colorado Riverkeeper, told Democracy Now! in a reent interview about the consequences to water and the environment of the Utah tar sands project:
Well, we’re concerned because this particular locality is in a high-elevation place called the Tavaputs Plateau, and it’s one of the last wild places in Utah. It’s a huge refuge for elk and deer. It’s also a beautiful watershed. It not only would affect the Colorado River, but it also—at this particular site, it’s at the top of the drainage, so it would also affect the White River and the Green River. And so, this is an inappropriate activity. People probably aren’t aware that Utah has a lot of tar sands. It’s exposed at the surface. It’s easy to get to. This would be a strip-mining project. It would completely deforest this high plateau. It would completely annihilate the vegetation for these animals. And it would actually—once they’re done, it would never have any kind of beneficial use whatsoever, besides destroying the watershed.
Lionel Trepanier, a spokesperson with Utah Tar Sands Resistance, has also cautioned that the tar sands project would affect the aquifer. "In 1999 the geological survey put out a report, a summary of groundwater resources and geo hydrology of Grand County, Utah. There you can see on page five it says that re-charged Grand County aquifers, is principally from infiltration of precipitation and stream flow primarily originating in the book cliffs."
In an attempt to highlight the environmental impacts, Utah Tar Sands Resistance held a "science fair" outside the Utah Water Quality Board hearing on Wednesday.
Responding to the decision in a statement (pdf), the company touted its environmental "merits" and said
The decision by the Water Quality Board further confirms Judge Allen’s finding that substantial evidence indicates the absence of shallow ground water in the project area and that the company’s proprietary process will have a de minimis, or “insignificant”, impact on any potential ground water" said Cameron Todd, CEO of US Oil Sands. “The decision also highlights the outstanding environmental attributes of US Oil Sands extraction process which uses only a non-toxic bio-solvent derived from citrus to remove oil from the sands. Our process uses no tailings ponds and recycles 95% of its water. The PR Spring project remains on track for commercial startup late in 2013, and the decision ultimately illustrates the merits that our responsible approach to oil sands development has for the environment and local communities.
"This mine is the first of its kind." said Rob Dubuc, the attorney representing Living Rivers, "Nobody really knows what the impacts will be. This is not the time to rush ahead without knowing what we’re doing," he said.
The fight, however, may not be over.
Dubuc said, "We’re likely to appeal" the decision, and Utah Tar Sands Resistance tweeted yesterday after the decision: "Expect resistance."