Climate activists display a banner at the U.S. Oil Sands strip-mining site at PR Springs along the border of Grand and Uintah counties. Regional environmental groups have set up a protest encampment at the location. [Photo courtesy of Utah Tar Sands Resistance]

Determined to halt a large-scale tar sands strip-mining project in the Book Cliffs north of Moab, members from the environmental groups Utah Tar Sands Resistance (UTSR), Canyon Country Rising Tide (CCRT), and Peaceful Uprising (PU), have established a permanent protest camp at the proposed mine site.

Approximately 20 protesters are currently camped out at the remote PR Springs, where Canada-based U.S. Oil Sands holds a lease to strip mine up to 32,000 acres of land – an area equivalent to approximately half the size of Arches National Park.

Environmentalists claim that the operation will severely impact the environment by polluting groundwater, displacing wildlife, and destroying large swaths of wilderness.

“This tar sands mine would cause the swift obliteration of multiple ecosystems, as well as contribute to the global climate change crisis,” USTR activist Jessica Lee said.

Strip mining requires the removal of all vegetation, followed by the subsequent removal of soils and strata that overlay the sought-after material.

“(With strip-mining) you’re talking about the literal annihilation of every living thing,” said Chris Baird, a former Grand County Council member and the current executive director of the Canyonlands Watershed Council. “This is as serious as anything has ever gotten in Grand County.”

Regarding the surge in activism at the site, U.S.Oil Sands CEO Cameron Todd said, “Our greatest concern is public safety.” He said he wants the public to know that, “The company operates in full compliance with all laws and regulations and adheres to the highest of safety and environmental responsibility.”

PR Springs is located on the Tavaputz Plateau above the Book Cliffs, approximately 70 miles northeast of Moab. It sits at an elevation of 8,000 feet in a diverse, high-desert ecosystem that includes pinyon, juniper, and aspen trees, and is also home to wildlife such as deer, elk, and buffalo. The area is commonly used by hunters.

The proposed mining area straddles the Grand and Uintah County line. Phase 1 of the project encompasses 6,000 acres and construction is slated to begin this summer. Production is expected to begin in 2015 with a projection to produce 2,000 barrels of tar sands crude per day. Phase 2, with a total area of 26,000 acres, lies entirely within Grand County.

“Based on our resources assessment, there should be sufficient, recoverable resource on our mining properties to operate 15 to 20 years,” U.S. Oil Sands vice president of operations Barclay Cuthbert, told the Moab Sun News last year.

The company estimated the creation of 75 jobs during the first year of operation, and 500 over the next 10 years, Cuthbert said.

Tar sands, or bituminous sands as they are more technically known, consist of loose or partially consolidated sandstone that contains a mixture of sand, clay, and water, saturated with a dense form of petroleum. When this layer is located near the surface, it can be stripped off, after which the petroleum, or bitumen needs to be extracted from the sand. It typically takes two tons of tar sands material to produce one barrel of crude oil.

Typical extraction requires immersion, and agitation of the sands in hot water, but because of the scarcity of water at the proposed mine site, U.S. Oil Sands plans to use a citrus-based chemical solvent to extract the bitumen from the sand. Nevertheless, the mine’s operation, according to their permit application, will require the use of 116 gallons of water per minute.

Todd said his company is on schedule for completion of the preparation phase of the project next year and that most equipment used on the project will be constructed in fabrication shops in the region beginning later this year.

Environmental groups have been battling the proposed mine in court for three years. The project is currently facing a legal challenge filed to the Utah State Supreme Court by Living Rivers, against the Utah Division of Water Quality (UDWC).

“This project is a time-bomb,” Living Rivers conservation director John Weisheit said. “The plume of contaminated water could leach into the Colorado, White and Green rivers long after the mining companies pack up and disappear.”

Weisheit says he is concerned that the large-scale, chemically-based mining operation will pollute groundwater sources that could one day enter the drinking water supply for millions downstream of the Colorado River.

However, the UDWC issued a permit to U.S. Oil Sands based on their findings that the mining operation posed no threat of contaminating the limited groundwater sources. It said the project site is isolated from nearby springs and seeps, and that test drills hit no groundwater until a depth of 1,800 feet.

Those findings are contradicted by a study by the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Utah which stated: “The results presented here indicate the existence of a groundwater flow system that is recharged on the ridge tops and flows downward to springs in the adjacent canyons. This finding raises concern for impairment of the springs and seeps in the canyons due to mining/processing/disposal activities.”

The report also states: “The results of this investigation of perennial springs run counter to statements made by U.S.Oil Sands expert witnesses regarding lack of a groundwater system.”

UTSR activist Gary Mesker also has concerns about water contamination, especially the effects it may have on wildlife, and he said he has discussed his concerns with local hunters in the area. He has seen deer, as well as animal tracks, near standing water in the test pits, which he says is surely contaminated.

Moab resident Trisha Hedin, an avid hunter who has drawn elk permits in the Book Cliffs, also worries about the effects of a strip mine on local wildlife. She said that in her years of hunting in the area, she hasn’t noticed negative effects on wildlife from traditional oil and gas drilling, but that a strip mine is a completely different matter.

“I can’t imagine that a project like this won’t affect deer and elk herds,” Hedin said. “The mule deer population in Utah is already extremely stressed.

Protestors say they plan to maintain a permanent vigil at PR Springs with the stated goals of, “observing all movement by U.S. Oil Sands, and other extraction projects in the area, to document the environmental devastation of the strip mines, and also to prove to investors the economic infeasibility of mining tar sands and oil shale.”

The activists say they will hold two upcoming events to draw more support for their cause. On the weekend of Friday, June 20, they will host “an inter-generational camp-out” where families are invited to come for a weekend of fun and informative activities.

The following weekend, to coincide with the fifth Tar Sands Healing Walk in Alberta, Canada, UTSR will be gathering in solidarity at the PR Springs site, “draw connections between global extraction projects, and to show our support for all those standing against tar sands mining.”

U.S Oil Sands said their operations will financially benefit the state and local communities. “The project will pay significant taxes and royalties to the state,” Todd said. “Much of this has been earmarked for education.  Many of these funds will flow back to local towns and counties.”

Moab resident and CCRT activist Max Granger said that people need to understand that what is being proposed for the Tavaputs Plateau, and many surrounding areas on the Colorado Plateau in general, is not simply a few small-scale oil and gas operations.

“What we are facing is an ever growing laundry list of large industrial projects including tar sands strip mines, oil refineries, a nuclear power plant, fracking fields, and more that threaten to transform rural Utah into a toxic sacrifice zone,” he said.

“[With strip-mining] you’re talking about the literal annihilation of every living thing. This is as serious as anything has ever gotten in Grand County.”

Project moving ahead, but still facing legal challenges from environmental organizations