SALT LAKE CITY — Groundwater contamination — threatened, real or imaginary — lies at the heart of a contentious dispute involving what could be the nation's first large-scale oil sands mining operation in Uintah and Grand counties.
Members of Utah's Water Quality Board will hear arguments Oct. 24 at their next regular meeting and decide if they will uphold an administrative law judge's opinion on the matter, agree with it but make modifications, or reject it outright.
At issue is the state Division of Water Quality's decision to issue a permit to U.S. Oil Sands for its PR Spring Mine after determining it will have minimal impact to potential groundwater in the area. The reasoning was based on evidence that shows a lack of groundwater resources in the project area, according to the division, as well as the manner of the mine's operation, such as the exclusion of tailings ponds. The division's decision was appealed and in late August, an administrative law judge issued an order upholding the permit.
Kimberlee McEwan, with the Utah Attorney General's Office, advised the board Wednesday that ultimately members will act as judges in the case, weighing the information already on record as well as arguments presented by U.S. Oil Sands, the Utah Attorney General's Office and the protester of the decision, Living Rivers.
The environmental group contends the division acted unlawfully by issuing the permit and argue that the mine's impacts to groundwater will have negative impacts to the Tavaputs Plateau and adjacent area.
U.S. Oil Sands has 32,005 acres under lease in the Uintah Basin area for the potential extraction of bitumen, a thick, tar-like substance that can be refined into oil. An initial site of 213 acres is planned for active mining operations that could begin by late next year.
Living Rivers contends the material used in the extraction process poses toxic hazards and should not be released into the environment. U.S. Oil Sands counters that the material is a bio-solvent derived from citrus oil.