SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday morning over the hotly contentious issue of whether a proposed oil sands mine in eastern Utah will harm ground and surface water.
In one corner, attorneys for the mining operation and the state Division of Water Quality argue that the proposed PR Spring Mine by U.S. Oil Sands will have no impact on surface or groundwater because too little exists in the region.
In the other corner, environmental critics that include Moab-based Living Rivers counter that the state is ignoring its obligation to protect those liquid assets because it is too dismissive of ephemeral streams generated by precipitation.
Environmental critics of the proposal believe they have launched a credible case to derail the project, while company officials assert their position is on solid ground.
"I think things went well," said company spokesman Barclay Cuthbert. "It seems like the Supreme Court justices had a good understanding of the case and the arguments offered by each side."
When development of the PR Spring Mine was wending its way through the regulatory process, state water quality regulators did not require the company to obtain a groundwater discharge permit based on a number of factors.
The division pointed to a mining process that uses a nontoxic, citrus-based chemical agent of which most will be recovered, the lack of impoundment or process water ponds and the recycling of any water used on site.
Hydrology tests in the area, according to the state and company, also show a "general" lack of groundwater down to 2,000 feet below the surface, far below where U.S. Oil Sands will be mining.
An administrative law judge who backed the issuance of the permit said the most compelling evidence demonstrating the absence of groundwater was based on 180 holes drilled in and around the proposed mine site up to 305 feet deep — more than twice the depth at which bitumen will be mined.
While this process has been pending because of the legal fight, the state Division of Oil, Gas and Mining issued its interim decision on a large mining operations permit to U.S. Oil Sands a little more than a year ago.
That permit involves an initial 213-acre site on a plateau in the Book Cliffs region. Ultimately, company officials say 200 exploratory wells have shown that 190 million barrels of oil can be successfully mined at the site. U.S Oil Sands holds leases to nearly 6,000 acres of school trust lands property in eastern Utah.
John Weisheit of Living Rivers said he believes the mining operation will have disastrous consequences for the watersheds that feed into the Colorado River system, which is why so many groups are opposed a project that he says is falsely characterized as benign.
"It is why so many people are opposed to this," Weisheit said.
Supreme Court justices took the case under advisement and will issue a ruling at a later date.