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Four activists reportedly were arrested in Utah's Book Cliffs on Monday during a protest against the planned expansion of a tar sands mine, which the group argues could do significant damage to regional water resources in the Colorado River watershed area.
Peaceful Uprising announced the arrests on its website and through Twitter on Monday and said police officers from two state agencies and sheriff's offices in Grand and Uintah counties were involved in the arrests. It wasn't immediately clear if the individuals were taken into custody or cited and released by police.
On Monday, protesters suspended themselves from metal tripods to block site-clearing work underway at PR Spring, where the East Tavaputs Plateau straddles the Grand and Uintah county lines. Officers reportedly used a cherry picker to remove them.
Utah Tar Sands Resistance tied its protest of U.S. Oil Sands' mining to last week's spill of up to 3 million gallons of lead- and arsenic-laced wastewater and sludge from a long-dormant gold mine into Colorado's Animas River, turning the waterway bright yellow and sending a toxic plume toward Utah via the San Juan River.
"The Animas River should be a reminder that future generations will reap what we sow," said Jesse Fruhwirth, from Utah Tar Sands Resistance. "Both are connected to the same water tree of life, so yeah, they are very much connected."
Numerous environmental activists oppose development of Utah's extensive tar sands deposits because extraction requires strip mining, and turning the ore's bitumen into liquid oil requires heavy processing.
Peaceful Uprising and Utah Tar Sands Resistance have resorted to direct action to thwart what is shaping up to be the nation's first commercial-scale tar sands mine developed to produce fuel oil.
U.S. Oil Sands, which is actually based in Calgary, recently got a green light from the state to expand its mine operations, but with critical caveats that have yet to be met.
The groups denounced the new construction as "a stunning show of contempt for lawful public process."
Activists say that state mining regulators should have withheld a mine permit until after a groundwater monitoring plan has been approved, along with a plan to ensure compliance with relevant air quality regulations.
The company has until Nov. 1 to submit the plans, but state officials say work at the mine is OK as long as tar sands ore remains untouched.
The groundwater question has been a central point of contention at PR Spring because for years, U.S. Oil Sands, with affirmation from the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, has argued the mine site is too far from any aquifer or recharge zone to pose a threat to groundwater.
But the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining (DOGM) last month changed tack after hearing from a University of Utah hydrologist who has studied the corner of the Book Cliffs. Bill Johnson's data suggest a hydrological link between the mine and springs that lace the area, providing an irreplaceable source of water for ranchers and wildlife.
DOGM director John Baza issued an order on July 17 that said the company "must not process ore" until the required monitoring programs are approved.
"They are doing some site clearing in the area they want to expand to. It was not contemplated as a prohibition on that type of activity," Baza said Monday. "If they start mining the material and apply solvent, that would be barred."
But activists argue Baza's explanation is proof the state's approval process is a "rubber stamp."
"It demonstrates that DOGM neither appreciates nor cares about the implications of further destruction of the environment and the fouling of ground- and subsurface water," wrote Gary Mesker, of Utah Tar Sands Resistance. "Because with additional clearing of the land and removing and disturbing soil, it exposes more toxic substances to be carried away by the winds or dissolved into rainwater and carried to tributaries that drain to the Colorado River."
Last summer, Peaceful Uprising and other groups led a blockade at the mine, which taps deposits owned by the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration. Police arrested 26 protesters, who were charged with various offenses, including rioting, vandalism, resisting arrest and obstruction of a roadway.
On Monday, officers used a crane to remove two protesters from tripods erected in a field where trees were being cut down, Melanie Martin, a Peaceful Uprising activist, said in a telephone interview from the site. The tripods were created using steel pipes and stand about 25 feet high, she said.
Police arrested a third activist who was chained to the cherry picker, Martin said. It wasn't clear why the fourth person was arrested.
All four were taken away in a van, which Martin said she believed was headed to the Uintah County jail in Vernal. A Grand County Sheriff's Office spokesman said he had no details about Monday's arrests, in part because cell phone communications are spotty in the Book Cliffs. A message left for the Uintah County Sheriff's Office was not immediately returned.