Plans for a Book Cliffs tar sands mine the nation's first fuel-producing one will be up for final approval next month before the state Water Quality Board.
Board members set a brief hearing on the PR Springs project for their next meeting, Oct. 24, when they will hear from the company behind the project, Alberta-based U.S. Oil Sands, and the group that appealed the initial project approval by Water Quality Division Director Walt Baker, Moab-based Living Rivers.
Baker signed off on the proposal last year without requiring a groundwater-pollution permit. His decision was partly based on the contention there is no groundwater to pollute in the project site, around 213 acres in the arid high country between Vernal and Moab.
And, while Living Rivers argued solvents used in the mining process would release cancer-causing petrochemicals by making the natural tars more mobile, US Oil Sands insisted its citrus-based solvent won't harm the environment.
Judge Sandra Allen last month sided with Baker; her decision hinged on the ground water question.
Located within an area of about 50 square miles leased by the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, the mine is expected to produce as much as 2,000 barrels of oil a day. The company hopes to be producing oil by the end of next year.
Assistant Attorney General Kimberlee McEwan, the water board's attorney, advised members to keep an open mind about the case.
"You are looking at all the evidence and how it was applied," she said of the decision the panel faces next month.
The Utah Board of Oil, Gas and Mining is poised to approve the project, but it is waiting to see how the water board handles the case before it makes it own final decision. In addition, if the water board upholds the judge's order, the approval is likely to go before the state Court of Appeals.
Meanwhile, the trust lands agency issued a closure order earlier this month to deter protesters and others from trespassing on its mining and drilling sites. The order came after reports that protesters had been visiting the PR Springs site and other active mining projects on SITLA lands.