Kanab residents are fractured over a proposed Utah sand mine

(Photo courtesy of Best Friends Animal Society) This photo from a May trip to Red Knoll near Kanab shows some of the landscape in the area of a proposed sand mind, which would provide material to use in fracking operations in the Uinta Basin.

Proponents of a sand mine outside Kanab won support from two local boards recently, but they have a long way to go before convincing many residents — particularly those who moved there to retire or run tourism businesses — that their project won’t harm the community and undermine an economy dependent on the the geological wonders that abound in this corner of southern Utah.

Dozens of people crammed into a July 9 meeting of the Kanab City Council in a display of intense opposition to the project that would produce 700,000 tons of sand to be used for fracking oil and gas wells 300 miles away in the Uinta Basin. Ultimately, City Council members unanimously approved a deal to supply up to 600 acre-feet of water to the mine and processing plant proposed by a company called Southern Red Sands at a site 10 miles northwest of town on U.S. 89.

But it was clear many residents will never welcome the open-pit mine, even though the region’s elected leaders uniformly support it and contend there is plenty of groundwater available to feed the mine’s processing plant while meeting the town’s future needs.

The proposal has exposed a long-standing divide, distinguishing those embracing “rural values” from those like Tom Carter and Will James who moved to Kanab to enjoy a quality of life afforded by proximity to Vermilion Cliffs, Grand Staircase, Glen Canyon and other protected landscapes.

Extractive industries may support a rural economy, but many see a sand mine as a threat to Kane County’s well-being.

“It’s a Trojan horse, folks,” Carter told the City Council. “They will be removing the aquifer. We will lose this world-class beautiful area that defines this wonderful place I moved to some 25 years ago. Don’t sell the water.”

How much water is needed?

A group called Keep Kanab Unspoiled has formed to fight the project, joining forces with Best Friends Animal Society to place signs all over town displaying the words “Frac Sand” with a red line through them.

Western oil and gas developers rely on distant Wisconsin sand, prompting Southern Red Sands and other companies to develop new sources closer to Utah, Wyoming Colorado and New Mexico’s oil fields.

The company has leased a 640-acre section of Utah school trust land for its mine near a prominent feature called Red Knoll, the project’s namesake.

CEO Chad Staheli says his company is committed to operating the mine in ways that won’t mar the landscape and disrupt the community.

"This is the kind of environment we want to keep beautiful," Staheli told the City Council. "While we may disagree on what it means to be environmentally sustainable or socially sustainable, I can promise you that we love this land and we love having our family on this land."

Staheli has now secured 1,200 acre-feet of water, but he said the mine and processing plant would use just 450 acre-feet a year, or 280 gallons each minute. The water would be used to remove impurities and to separate grains that meet the right specifications for propping open the cracks in fracked oil and gas wells.

Kanab will supply half the water, while the Kane County Water Conservancy District will supply the other half. The company will pay $2 for each 1,000 gallons it draws, which is a lot for an industrial use but still about half what Kanab residents are billed.

The Kane County Planning and Zoning Commission also issued a conditional use permit for the mine, but the project must still obtain approvals from the Utah Department of Environmental Quality and Division of Oil, Gas and Mining. Meanwhile, the water deals must be reviewed by the state engineer, who will be asked to sign off.

Outside environmental groups have not gotten involved in this fight; opposition to the mine is largely driven by Kanab residents who are upset with what they see as a process that is short on transparency and long on potential conflicts of interest.

“They have been saying it’s a done deal even before the decision is made,” James, a tour company operator, said in an interview. “The intent is clear. It’s a chilling effect on public participation.”

James and others are particularly suspicious of County Commissioner Andy Gant, who is the mine’s operations manager and an in-law to Mike Noel, the water district manager. Noel, a retired state lawmaker, built his political career demanding public lands be opened for more mineral development and motorized access.

Longtime adversaries, James and Noel got into a tussle while waiting in line to speak to the City Council. Neither man got to address the body. Instead, they were escorted out of the room by police. Because he did not leave willingly, James spent the night in jail and was charged with disorderly conduct.

Noel later obtained a court order barring James from coming near him, alleging his criticisms posted on social media and rudely voiced at public meetings amount to stalking. James says the stalking accusation is ridiculous and the injunction is intended only to squelch free speech.

Diversifying the economy

Southern Red Sands holds 12,000 acres of mining claims on the federal land surrounding the proposed mine site. Members of Keep Kanab Unspoiled fear that mining operations could expand onto these lands, accelerating the project’s impacts and increasing its water needs.

Staheli argued those concerns are unfounded.

“There’s a lot of reasons we would want to own those claims,” Staheli said. “One is protectionist. It’s to make sure others don’t come and set up sand shops next to us. We want to make sure we control as much as we can.”

Southern Red Sands’ annual production target is a little more than half the 1.2 million tons of sand currently used to frack wells in the Uinta Basin. It would take 46 truck trips each day to transport the sand, increasing traffic by 1.6 percent on U.S. 89, according to Staheli. Uinta-bound trucks would not be routed through Kanab.

Mayor Robert Houston and other city officials said various hydrological studies conducted over the past 30 years indicate the mine’s water use will not deplete the aquifer Kanab relies on, and if it did the city could legally cut off the mine.

Best Friends has hired its own hydrological expert, who reviewed the reports and found them insufficient for making a sound decision, according to Best Friends executive Bart Battista. He accuses Staheli and city officials of habitually “underselling” the project’s potential impacts.

Residents who support the project argue that the mine would diversify an economy that is becoming increasingly reliant on tourists.

“We shouldn’t be putting all our eggs in that one basket,” Scott Colson told the City Council. “I’m seeing tourism go unscrutinized in this conversation. Our tourism industry injects millions of vehicles a year into our community, thousands of tour buses, and they are responsible for what I believe is the destruction of some of our natural treasures.”

According to a Wisconsin lawyer hired by mine opponents, however, sand extraction does little to bolster healthy economies while burdening rural areas with dust, radon, noise and light pollution. Tim Jacobson urged the City Council not to supply Southern Red Sands with water and indicated he has been retained to fight the project in court if necessary.

“This is not simply a water transaction. It is a long-term marriage to an industry with a record of devastating rural communities,” said Jacobson, who lives in Wisconsin sand-mining country. “Frack sand mining has failed to bring prosperity to western Wisconsin despite having 130 of these facilities, while leaving a trail of destruction in its wake.”

Before the City Council voted, member Michael East announced his support for Southern Red Sands, arguing that mining would not impede tourism, although the controversy could.

“The impact this will have on tourism depends on all of us. If we continue to put stupid signs on the corners of town that talk about no fracking,” East said, drawing jeers from the audience.

"You are supposed to represent all of us," a resident said.

“I do,” he shot back.

“If we continue to blow this up, tourists will see it and stop coming. A mine is not something people are going to readily see unless we draw attention to it,” East continued. “You have to understand that we will be our own worst enemy on this situation if we continue to blow it up. Yeah, that’s what I have to say.”