Opposition mounts as first tar sands mine in US gets a green light

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Sep 7, 2012, 11:36:21 PM9/7/12

Last week, a new front opened in the struggle against tar sands mining in
the U.S. If you didn’t know that tar sands mining is in the works on this
side of the border in the first place, you’re not alone. Most people don’t
realize that tar sands extraction, which has caused tremendous pollution
and environmental degradation in Canada, has crossed the border to U.S.
soil, where it has taken root in Utah.

Activists on both sides of the border have been working fervently to halt
the spread of tar sands in Canada and the piping of tar sands oil from
Alberta to Texas. Beginning with Tar Sands Action’s mass arrests outside
the White House in August 2011, followed by the Indigenous Environmental
Network’s protests at the climate talks in Durban that December, activists
have made Canadian tar sands mining and the Keystone XL pipeline to the
Gulf of Mexico a high-profile issue this past year.

Now, direct action campaigns like the Tar Sands Blockade in Texas are
continuing the effort to stop construction of the southern leg of the
pipeline by disrupting business as usual for the oil industry. The threat
of tar sands mining in the U.S., however, complicates the struggle. It
forces geographically divergent groups to either divide their efforts or
find ways to unite across vast distances. That’s why groups like Utah Tar
Sands Resistance and Before It Starts are forming a strategy that can
join, as well as compliment, the tornado of opposition that has formed
against the tar sands industry.

Before It Starts — co-founded by Ashley Anderson, who began Peaceful
Uprising with Tim DeChrisopher in 2009 — is focusing primarily on national
outreach, while Utah Tar Sands Resistance is focusing on forging local and
regional coalitions. In both groups, activists who have experience in
nonviolent direct action are prepared to ramp up efforts when the time is
right. Thus far, however, the struggle has mainly been waged in the

The environmental group Living Rivers initiated a legal challenge in 2010
to halt the progress of what’s set to become the first commercial tar
sands mine in the U.S. — a forested area in Eastern Utah called PR Spring,
which the state has leased a portion of to the Canadian mining company
U.S. Oil Sands. Living Rivers has contested the company’s permit to dump
wastewater at the mine, but last week, the judge — an employee of the Utah
Department of Environmental Quality — sided with U.S. Oil Sands, granting
it the right to pour toxic wastewater into the remote wilderness of
eastern Utah.

The case hinged on whether or not PR Spring contains groundwater. In the
hearing back in May, U.S. Oil Sands argued that the land holds no
groundwater, which means that polluting the land wouldn’t contaminate
water systems. But according to engineering geologist Elliott Lips, who
spoke as a witness for Living Rivers, the land holds numerous seeps and
springs, which the toxic tailings would pollute before either continuing
to flow into rivers or percolating downward into the Mesa Verde aquifer.
Ultimately, the judge was satisfied knowing that the company had conducted
its own tests and would have reported water if it had found any.

Raphael Cordray, co-founder of the Utah Tar Sands Resistance, explains
that tar sands mining would be incredibly destructive in a number of ways,
such as polluting water, lowering river levels and destroying diverse
ecosystems. “There’s so much wild land in our state, and that’s something
I’m proud of,” she said. “That’s our legacy. And it’s a treasure for the
whole world. Some of these places they’re trying to mine are so unique
that if more people realized they existed, they’d certainly be considered
national parks.”

To catalyze mass resistance, the group plans to lead trips to the site.
“Helping people experience the majesty of this land firsthand will show
people how much is at stake, and move them to take a stronger stand,” said
Utah Tar Sands Resistance co-founder Lionel Trepanier.

Together with activists from Peaceful Uprising and Living Rivers, Utah Tar
Sands Resistance visited the PR Spring site two weeks ago, and members
returned home ready to ramp up efforts to halt the mining. As a member of
both groups, I went along on the trip, because I wanted to see firsthand
what the land looked like and whether the mining company’s claims about
the absence of groundwater were accurate.

As it turns out, they couldn’t be more false. Water has etched its
presence into this land, leaving creek beds that may run low at times but
never go away. And clearly, the area holds plenty of water to support the
large herds of deer and elk, as well as the aspen, Douglas firs and pinyon
pines that make up the dense forest covering much of the land.

This vibrant green scenery was juxtaposed by the two-acre strip mine just
feet away from the forest’s edge. The difference between life and death
could not have been more stark. Looking into the face of such destruction,
I realized it’s no longer about saving the ecosystem, or saving our water
— it’s about saving life on Earth. But that kind of effort isn’t possible
without a broad movement behind it.

According to Lionel Trepanier, the groups working on this issue are
looking to Texas’ Tar Sands Blockade as a model for building a broad
coalition that includes “diverse groups of people like ranchers, hunters,
the Indigenous community and climate justice activists.”

“I think we so often assume that someone won’t agree with us just because
they seem different from us, when they could be our biggest ally,” said
Cordray. “We’re committed to breaking down those barriers formed by fear
of reaching out, and approaching people as human beings who need clean
water and a healthy environment just as much as we do.”

While still in the first leg of its campaign to stop tar sands and oil
shale mining, the group is reaching out with its teach-in and slideshow
presentation to a wide range of outdoors retailers, religious communities
and groups concerned about environmental quality in the city. When they
handed out flyers and spoke with attendees at a recent Nature Conservancy
film screening, they were surprised at how many people in the seemingly
politically moderate, middle-class crowd were outraged at the prospect of
tar sands mining coming to Utah.

“People are genuinely shocked this is happening,” said Trepanier. “They
just want some direction, some guidance.”

After the Utah Tar Sands Resistance secures a vehicle to use for the
trips, they’ll invite people at the teach-ins to attend, and will bring as
many as possible to the site. They feel that being in nature together will
break down barriers, helping them to see each other not as the labels
society assigns them, but as human beings who are mutually dependent on
the ecosystem, and on each other.

To raise awareness and empower people to join a coalition that ultimately
aims to halt the destruction of tar sands and equally-destructive oil
shale mining, Utah Tar Sands Resistance and Peaceful Uprising have been
working together on creative methods of outreach. In April, they staged a
flash mob dubbed Citizens’ Public Hearing in the office of the state
agency leasing out public land for tar sands mining. Dozens of people
flooded the office, where a woman playing an elementary school student
announced that she had called a public hearing to expose the agency’s
misguided decision to let state lands be destroyed. They also performed a
similar street play, called Bringing Science Lessons to the Governor,
outside the governor’s mansion when he held a luncheon to talk energy
policy with four other Western governors.

Members are now building a “tar sands monster,” a Frankenstein-inspired
creature who never wanted to be pulled from the earth to pollute the
waters, which they believe will make an attention-getting mascot for their
efforts. The activists also plan to use online videos of their theatrical
endeavors as an outreach tool to get activists across the country thinking
about joining them in their struggle when the time is right.

Uniting a diverse range of people such as activists, farmers, landowners
and outdoor enthusiasts, many of whom may have not previously thought of
themselves as activists, will be important, as this is only the beginning
of proposed tar sands operations in the U.S. The state agency (School and
Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA) that leased the PR
Spring site to U.S. Oil Sands holds pockets of land scattered around the
state, which it may lease for tar sands and oil shale mining.

The Bureau of Land Management is also considering leasing nearly 2.5
million acres of public land throughout Utah, Wyoming and Colorado for tar
sands and oil shale mining. Much of this would overlap with indigenous
land or is in close proximity to national parks and other protected areas.

In the meantime, Living Rivers will likely appeal the decision to let U.S.
Oil Sands dump wastewater into the land. Its success, however, will be
determined by the extent to which groups like Utah Tar Sands Resistance
can educate and empower the general public. Such a base of support, like
the one that has formed in Texas, will not only pose a challenge to fossil
fuel interests, but also help to usher in a new era of environmental

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