VERNAL — Utah Phosphate Co. officials held an open house Tuesday that drew more than 200 Uintah County residents, and it didn't take long for the fireworks to begin.
"I want to know where you live and where your kids go to school, because I want to put a toxic waste dump next to your house," one man told Paul Poister, the company's government relations manager.
"This is personal," the man added.
Utah Phosphate, a subsidiary of the Canadian firm Agrium Inc., isn't looking to build a toxic waste dump in the county. Company officials say they just want to study whether it's feasible to develop two mining leases on property owned by the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration near the base of Taylor Mountain northwest of Vernal.
"(The project) is in the very preliminary stages," said Chris Wilde, director of business development for Utah Phosphate. "We just bought the leases. The sale only closed just barely a month ago."
Phosphate is processed into elemental phosphorus, which is used in a variety of products such as lawn fertilizer, toothpaste and soft drinks.
Those leases, however, are located on parcels that sandwich Ashley Spring, which is why area residents and water managers are concerned about the proposed mine.
"It is our sole source of water for our treatment plant, which is at the mouth of Ashley Gorge," said David Hatch, district manager of the Ashley Valley Water and Sewer Improvement District.
"It is also the source for the Central Utah (Water Conservancy District's treatment) plant that serves Vernal," Hatch said. "So this spring serves all of the valley, even Jensen and Maeser."
The water comes from Dry Fork Creek. It sinks into a subterranean limestone formation and resurfaces in Ashley Gorge. Because phosphate mining typically involves blasting, Hatch said conducting such operations near the spring could damage the limestone formation and compromise the water supply for about 10,000 people.
But Wilde said many of the fears expressed by community members are based on "assumptions that may or may not be correct."
"Some of the things I've heard today were probably exaggerations," he said.
Contributing: Amy Joi O'Donoghue