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Groups challenge Utah over mine expansion

This 2011 photo shows z test pit and planned development area for U.S. Oil Sands about 85 miles from Vernal. Western Resource Advocates filed an administrative challenge of Utah's decision to let U.S. Oil Sands expand its oil sands mine in eastern Utah.
This 2011 photo shows z test pit and planned development area for U.S. Oil Sands about 85 miles from Vernal. Western Resource Advocates filed an administrative challenge of Utah's decision to let U.S. Oil Sands expand its oil sands mine in eastern Utah.
Tim Wall, U.S. Oil Sands

SALT LAKE CITY — A planned expansion of the country's only commercial oil sands mine is once again under legal challenge by an environmental group because of feared impacts to water resources.

Living Rivers, through Western Resource Advocates, filed an administrative challenge last week to the Utah Division of Water Quality's decision to allow the mine to expand beyond its initial demonstration phase.

"The state of Utah consistently seems to place development of these dirty fuels above protecting public health and the environment,” said attorney Rob Dubuc of Western Resource Advocates. “With clear evidence showing that the area of the mine is connected to area seeps and springs, there’s simply no justification for DWQ to allow the mine to expand operations without appropriate oversight.”

But the division concluded there is no risk from the PR Spring Mine to contaminate ground or surface water because of the lack of water resources in the area.

Dubuc countered that new studies show the area of the expanded mine is a recharge zone for perennial springs in Main Canyon, below the mine. He added that tests conducted by the company show that diesel range organic compounds in the mine tailings will be thousands of times greater than the maximum contaminant levels allowed in drinking water.

Donna Kemp Spangler, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, said regulators stand by their decision.

"Water Quality's decision to allow U.S. Oil Sands to proceed with its project is based on scientific facts that have repeatedly been upheld throughout the legal system, including the Utah Supreme Court," she said. "The Division of Water Quality did not take any further action, so we don't think this appeal has merit."

Last March, the Utah Supreme Court heard another challenge by Living Rivers over their belief that the state should have required a groundwater discharge permit for the mining operation. The case, justices ruled, was not brought in a timely manner.

In that hearing, the state argued hydrology tests in the area demonstrated a general lack of groundwater down to 2,000 feet below the surface, far below where U.S. Oil Sands would be mining.

Company officials believe that ultimately, 190 million barrels of oil can be successfully mined from the site, which occupies school trust lands property in eastern Utah.

U.S. Oil Sands' chief executive officer Cameron Todd said this latest challenge by Living Rivers stems from the company applying for an "environmental improvement" request with state regulators over revisions to how it will proceed with the mining operation.

Todd said the company is reducing the amount of area that will be disturbed in the project and enhancing reclamation efforts by shifting the order in which the mine is developed.

“Local activists seeking to obstruct the lawful development are challenging the company’s environmental improvement request," he said. "Arguments made against the improvement are the same as were previously heard and rejected by state regulators, appeals judge and the Utah Supreme Court...The matter has been exhaustively reviewed during the past four years, and the company’s plan was validated and approved by the state. "

But Dubuc said those revisions sought by the mining company significantly alter and expand the project enough that state water quality regulators should revisit their position on the mine, require a permit and require monitoring of the springs to ensure they are protected.

"We feel that what we’re asking is very reasonable and that it’s time for (the division) to properly regulate this mine," he said.

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