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Vernal • The new owners of a dormant open-pit tar-sand mine want to resume working the troubled site. But those who closed the mine left behind concrete and berms that should have been removed, and the seedlings they planted to restore the land died missteps that are drawing scrutiny from state regulators and raise questions about repairing the environment.
Last year, a company called Tar Sands Holdings II acquired the mining project from bankrupt developers who had struggled for two decades before giving up in 2012. The operation includes an ore-processing plant and the pit, a gash in the mountainside surrounded by towering piles of spent ore and the dirt removed to reach it.
In the years since mining started here, a residential neighborhood has been built to the pit's southeastern entrance.
Tar Sands proposes to process 730,000 tons of ore a year over an 11-year period. The Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, or DOGM, insists that the reclamation bond required from the mine should be more than doubled, to $683,000, and additional monitoring wells should be drilled to make sure groundwater isn't being contaminated.
Earlier this year, inspectors issued a notice of violation accusing the company or its predecessor of failing to maintain an adequate bond and operating on an adjacent area that Uintah County has mined since the 1930s for road material. Equipment, drums and dirt were found improperly stored on the county's old mine area, documents say.
Tar Sands manager Kevin Baugh, based in Salt Lake City, did not return a phone call.
This mining has been taking place on the aptly named Asphalt Ridge, the northwest-southeast running bluff west of Vernal. The ridge is largely school trust lands transferred to the state in hopes of extracting oil from its tar sands.
These deposits are rich in bitumen, a degraded hydrocarbon whose lighter elements have escaped after surrounding rock eroded away. This geological process has left a viscous substance near the surface that can be processed into asphalt and even liquid oil.
In an unrelated project nearby, MCW Energy Group intends to use solvents to capture oil from these deposits next month when it commences "full production mode," which will yield 250 barrels a day.
Tar Sands Holding's old open-pit mine was operated for 20 years by Crown Asphalt Ridge or its subsidiaries on Vernal's western outskirts.
Crown's faded sign dubs the project the "First U.S. Oil Sand Extraction Facility." However, the company abandoned attempts to process oil here in favor of producing less-refined asphalt products, then declared bankruptcy in 2012.
DOGM now wants Tar Sands Holding to repair the landscape damaged by exploratory wells Crown drilled near the pit.
The agency had released most of the $25,000 bond associated with Crown's exploration permit, but soon rued that decision after DOGM inspector April Abate discovered the bore holes had been plugged sloppily. She found bentonite and cement poured on the ground "indiscriminately," berms remained in place and revegetatation efforts failed.
"The site should NOT have been authorized for a partial release on the bore hole plugging," she wrote in a March 2014 report.
Last month, the DOGM board claimed the remaining $7,600 of the bond, but that sum will hardly be adequate.
"The cement and bentonite at the surface needs to be broken up with a pry bar and either removed or buried," Abate's report said. "Since none of the seeding took to the site, the pad sites will need additional seed supply."
Meanwhile, Uintah County and Tar Sands Holdings have negotiated responsibility for reclaiming the county's permitted area, where the county Road Department once mined road materials. Earlier this year, 50-gallon barrels and scrap metal piled up in the county's "bone yard" in apparent violation of the operating permit, because these materials could contaminate the soil, according to an exchange of e-mails between Abate and Tar Sands' environmental consultant.
Earlier this month, the county commission signed off on a deal that transfers the county's permit to Tar Sands, along with the county's $175,000 reclamation bond.
In exchange, the company assumes responsibility for reclaiming the county site and provides the county 5,468 tons of high-grade asphalt with oil content between 11 and 13 percent, according to deputy county attorney Jon Stearmer.
Both sides hope the deal will allow Tar Sands to move forward on its plans and end confusion over who must reclaim an area where there have long been "overlapping" operations.
Tar Sands' interest here is not liquid oil, but in producing a "dry froth" that is 50 to 60 percent bitumen and can be used to seal roofs and roadway cracks, according to filings with DOGM seeking a permit for large-scale mining operations. Each year, the company expects to dig up 730,000 tons of ore. After processing, 650,000 tons of spent material will be returned to the mine pit.
Overburden, the dirt removed to access ore at the Tar Sands site, will backfill the county's old pit until it can be contoured to match the landscape.
Fifty-ton haul trucks will move the ore to a 5,000-cubic-yard stockpile before it is fed into the processing plant. Refining uses no solvents other than hot water from the Ashley Valley water district, consumed at a rate of 100 gallons per minute.
That translates to 160 acre feet a year, or the amount of water used by 320 to 640 Utah homes.
Although documents describe the spent ore as "clean sand," it will still contain about 0.5 percent bitumen. But these hydrocarbons would be the least mobile, so the company contends no groundwater contaminants will be discharged.
But the DOGM staff wants greater efforts to determine whether mine tailings percolate chemicals into the ground. In a letter to the Department of Environmental Quality, Abate and her boss, minerals program manager Paul Baker, noted the mine has only two monitoring wells, both on the east side of the pit.
They insisted more are needed, particularly when there is no baseline data to establish natural background levels of hydrocarbons in the ground here.
Without a monitoring well network, "there will be no effective way to establish the appropriate groundwater protection standards as required under [state law] or determine that the tailings are not exceeding those groundwater standards," the letter stated.