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The 21 anti-tar sands "land defenders" arrested at a future mine site on the Uintah-Grand county line were released on bail Tuesday after spending a night in jail. They face possible charges of trespassing, interfering with an arrest and conspiracy to commit escape, said Uintah County Undersheriff John Laursen.
Uintah and Grand county deputies arrested most of the activists after they scaled an 8-foot fenced enclosure and secured themselves to construction equipment on Monday.
U.S. Oil Sands has been using the machinery to clear its 213-acre project area on state trust lands where officials hope to establish the nation's first fuel-producing tar sands mine at PR Springs.
Some 80 activists associated with Utah Tar Sands Resistance and Peaceful Uprising gathered at the construction site early Monday to physically block work where the Calgary-based company intends to strip mine and process bitumen-bearing ore sometime next year.
The blockade came at the end of a week-long peaceful demonstration called Climate Justice Summer Camp, which brought activists from across the country who want to thwart tar sands development in the United States.
Environmentalists contend the mining and processing of tar sands and oil shale, hydrocarbon resources that occur in great abundance under Utah's Uinta Basin, would take too big a toll on the land and accelerate climate change.
But Monday's illegal actions did little to slow the PR Springs project, said Cameron Todd, chief executive of U.S. Oil.
"These activists are here for one reason and that's to stop development, not just U.S. Oil Sands, but [energy] development by anybody. Their objective is not an environmental objective," Todd said Tuesday. "The dinner got taken off the plates of a bunch of families. They showed up for work and weren't allowed to work. They all lost their wages yesterday because a group of people took the law into their own hands and I deplore that."
While activists complained deputies acted with excessive force and targeted women protestors, Todd commended the state and local officers for exercising restraint.
"I'm an enormous believer in free speech, but at the end of day if you decided your opinions matter more and that allows you to break the law or cause an injury to an officer, that's where the rules of society demand law enforcement step in," Todd said.
Seven of those arrested were from Salt Lake City and the rest were from out of state, according to the sheriff's press release. Among those arrested was the outspoken Jesse Fruhwirth of Utah Tar Sands Resistance, whom colleagues say was targeted because he was filming the action. They also said he was injured as he was being arrested.
"He wasn't getting in the way," said Jessica Lee, a spokeswoman for the protestors.
Activists justify direct action by pointing to tar sands' ugly track record in Alberta, where vast amounts of water and energy are consumed to separate bitumen, the heavy fractions of oil, from ore. But unlike the steam-based Canadian operations, U.S. Oil Sands will use a non-toxic citrus-based solvent that will be reused.
"We are pursuing the most environmentally responsible [oil sands] project ever conceived of," Todd said.
Deputies arrived at PR Springs at 6 a.m. Monday to find protestors had "vandalized 'No Trespassing' signs, placed a culvert, rocks, sagebrush and lumber across the access road to an equipment storage area," according to the sheriff's press release issued Tuesday. Fifteen protestors were inside the fenced area. Another 30 sat in front of it, but complied with deputies' instructions to leave.
As deputies arrested those inside the fence and loaded them into vans, their friends sat on an access road, intertwined arms and refused to leave, the release said. Six of them joined their colleagues in the vans for the 50-mile ride to the Vernal jail and two others were arrested at the jail, where they had gone to support friends in custody.
"This vigil is not going to end because of this police brutality," Lee said. She claimed deputies used dogs to intimidate protestors and violently wrenched their arms apart.
"Brutality? There was brutality. I had three officers hit in the head with fists. Other than that, no," Undersheriff Laursen said. "Dogs were not taken out to cause any intimidation. If any were off leash it was to take potty breaks in the sagebrush."