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Protesters had good reason to block road

Published August 12, 2013 4:30 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The recent shutdown of construction activities on a little-known eastern Utah byway by 100-plus blockaders is the inevitable result of years of administrative failures; disregard for Utah's air, water and land; and dedicating precious tax dollars to expensive rural infrastructure that benefits a select few.

U.S. Oil Sands, a Canadian company leasing 32,000 acres from Utah's School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, claims that their tar sands strip mine in the Book Cliffs (the first commercial tar sands mine in the country) came with good public and governmental involvement.

On the contrary, Utah's Department of Environmental Quality is stacked with industry cronies whose legal duties force them to serve their shareholders at the expense of the people of Utah. That the U.S. Oil Sands strip mine was given a green light at every turn comes as no surprise.

Cameron Todd, CEO of U.S. Oil Sands, claims, "Our primary concern in the region right now is public safety."

We wish it were so. In truth, tar sands development presents multiple dangers to the communities around strip-mining and refining operations.

Refineries in Salt Lake and Davis counties would be the destination of the bitumen product from the Book Cliffs tar sands strip mine, and refining of this dirtiest of fossil fuels would add toxic burden to an already sickening and deadly air shed.

Heavy metals and contaminants currently bound up within the tar sands (toxic in parts per trillion) would be released into the Colorado River watershed — recently named America's most endangered watershed and used by 36 million downstream people. Ranchers in a thirsty land would lose the lifeblood of their livelihoods. Hunters and recreationists would lose one of the remaining wild areas of the West forever in a state that relies on billions of tourism dollars annually.

U.S. Oil Sands additionally claims that their extraction process is based on sound science. Their claims that tarry bitumen can be cleanly extracted from sand and rock — a conglomerate not unlike asphalt — using little water and a compound derived from orange peels is naught but deceptive pseudoscience pushed by executives out to make a buck.

The company also claims that there are no operations at the strip mine site currently.

Not so. Orem-based Goran Construction is contracted to extract gravel and bitumen from U.S. Oil Sands' test pit near PR Springs to furnish material for expansion of Seep Ridge Road — right up to U.S. Oil Sands' front door.

These activities are necessary for U.S. Oil Sands' and other extreme energy extractors' transportation needs and are costing taxpayers $3 million per mile of the 45-mile corridor up to the Uintah/Grand County line.

A select few fossil fuel tycoons stand to benefit from this costly, publicly funded boondoggle, and these are the very operations that blockaders successfully stopped last Monday.

Finally, in what may be their most offensive claim yet, U.S. Oil Sands — along with equally complicit SITLA — asserts that these public lands must be leased and strip-mined in order to educate Utah's children. In reality, they are set to poison the children's air and water while running off with the profits. A mere 1 percent of Utah's education budget comes from the leasing of all of SITLA's holdings around the state.

Given the state's string of blatant administrative failures and the denial of several earnest legal efforts to stop the strip mine in the court system (not to mention climate devastation from increased carbon emissions ), Utahns interested in stopping further climate injustices are left with no option but the type of direct action that we saw in the Book Cliffs.

Rachel Carter is a sixth-generation Utahn and member of the advisory board of Peaceful Uprising, a Salt Lake City climate justice group.