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Permission to Pollute: A Green Light for the First Tar Sands Mine in the US?

A hillside is bleeding. The blood spills from wounded rock, from the pores of the earth, falling into black ponds that sit stark against the emerald grace of her body. A crow dips in a bit of meat she’s scavenged, a ritual. The meat sticks in the murky substance, as she strains to pull out her head. She reaches toward her head with her foot, the ooze filling her nostrils. She falls in. As she struggles, her wings spread out as if gliding on air, a desperate effort to maintain buoyancy for as long as possible. In her last moments, her head rises and her eyes peer out at the sky through the heavy glaze of oil.

Her eyes are gone by the time I see her floating in the black oil, wings forever outstretched. The rainbow eddies swirling around her head bear witness to the presence of a spring, all but drowned by the viscous oil. The black ooze collects in those pools that lie waiting for water, those places where deer, coyotes, elk come to drink, for oil is opportunistic. Below, a creek carries spring water down the canyon.

A hillside is bleeding. A crow is dead. But no one has thought to remove the evidence. It lies rusting but intact at the crest of the hill: An oil extracting machine, abandoned in 1983. A thick pulp of oily rock has frozen halfway down the out shoot, as if time had simply stopped. The bulldozers that leveled the top of the hill are gone, but her bloody ruins and the rusty processor make the crime abundantly clear.

Whomever said the earth will recover from any disaster forgot about the suffering of a crow, silent as clouds, long as the rusting of time through steel bones of machinery that were taken, a long time ago, from the land.

Just over the crest of the next hill, a new mining site has begun operations. A two-acre pit lies strip mined and bleeding, just like this one. Two deer stood on the edge of the berm, with sprawling hillsides of Douglas fir, aspen, pinion pine behind them as we gaped in horror and awe.

I’d come here with a group of other concerned citizen activists, who wanted to see for ourselves what this land looked like, and whether the mining company’s claims that it held no water to pollute were accurate. We found sweeping vistas of forest in which elk, turkeys, mule deer thrived—even, so we learned, unruly bears relocated from Yellowstone. We found dry creek beds that clearly held water during parts of the year. We found a spring pushing oil from an old tar sands mine down the hillside, toward one of these creek beds. We found rain.

Yesterday, the mining company—U.S. Oil Sands, a Canadian operation—received the right to pour toxic wastewater into the land. The judge, an employee of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, ruled in favor of a prior decision to let the company dump this water without a permit, and without monitoring.

The case hinged on whether or not the area contains groundwater. The company argued, in the hearing back in May, that the land holds no groundwater, meaning that polluting the land won’t contaminate water systems. Allowing the company to pour water into the landscape makes that a moot point, however. Whether water is poured into the ecosystem by humans, or occurs naturally in the environment, it has the power to flush substances through the streams and into the rivers. Water flows. Whether it carries minerals or toxins, it travels onward. And those creek beds, those seeps, that emerald riparian ecosystem with its meandering stream just downhill from the mine, would all be prepared to carry it.


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Water has a presence in this land. It has etched itself into the hillsides, telling its story even during the driest times of the year.

At the hearing in May, engineering geologist Elliott Lips, a witness for the environmental organization Living Rivers, stated that U.S. Oil Sands’ own documentation shows that water will drain freely from the tailings area, contaminating the larger ecosystem. “The assumption that precipitation in the area is too low for this to occur completely ignores the fact that precipitation is sufficient to recharge shallow perched aquifers that contribute flow to the numerous seeps and springs in the area,” he said. “Water will percolate through the waste material in the dump sites and either continue moving downward or emerge as a new seep or spring.”

Water flows. That’s exactly what water has always done. And the polluted water will either flow into waterways, or continue to downward to a deep aquifer that even U.S. Oil Sands acknowledges the presence of. Indeed, that’s where U.S. Oil Sands has asserted it will draw its water from, lest environmentalists draw attention to how river waters would dramatically lower if used for tar sands mining.

We are, like that crow immersed in oil, stepping into a trap from which it will soon be impossible to escape. The PR Spring site totals 62 acres, and the company has leases on 50 square miles of state lands. The massive new freeway that’s replaced the humble road leading out to the area suggests that’s just the beginning. The BLM is considering leasing 91,4045 acres of land for tar sands extraction in eastern Utah. Many of these acres overlap the Uintah/Ouray Reservation, and wilderness that could never, ever be re-planted by a mining company.

Thinking in terms of acreage can be confusing, however. When you think in terms of the Athabascan fisherman whose family must eat poisoned fish, or the migrating birds who died seeking the delta as they landed on tailings ponds, or the Yellowstone bears who have nowhere left to go, it simplifies things a little.

We have only one choice: to stop this madness, before it starts.

The grassroots organizations Utah Tar Sands Resistance, Before It Starts, and Peaceful Uprising have been working to halt tar sands and oil shale mining in Utah, in solidarity with groups such as Living Rivers and its attorneys from Western Resource Advocates as well as the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Utah chapter of the Sierra Club, the Canyonlands Watershed Council, and the Grand Canyon Trust.

Melanie Jae Martin

Melanie writes on environmental justice and forging a sustainable future. Follow her at @MJaeMartin.

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