The Grand County Sheriff's Department is asking a state agency for a “Right of Entry” permit to establish a command center in the Book Cliffs area near the PR Spring tar sands strip mine about 60 miles north of Moab.
According to the project report posted on the Utah State Public Lands Policy Coordination Office website, the proposed command center “will allow law enforcement officials to have a presence on the Bookcliffs when needed.”
The report anticipates the need to level the ground at the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) site. It also calls for the development of a septic leach field and the construction of a security fence. Development of the project is scheduled to begin on June 15, 2015.
SITLA resource specialist Bryan Torgerson said that the main purpose of the command center is to respond to environmental activists who have been protesting the development of the first tar sands strip mine in the United States.
“The protesters are doing illegal activity up there and they have caused damage to private property,” he said.
In June of this year, environmental activists from the group Utah Tar Sands Resistance (UTSR) announced plans to establish a permanent “vigil” at the PR Spring tar strip mine site. They were joined by members of the Moab-based Canyon Country Rising Tide, and Peaceful Uprising.
In July, about 80 protesters clashed with the Uintah County Sheriff's Department and 21 were arrested. The protesters blocked a road and locked themselves to earth-moving equipment in order to halt construction on the Canadian owned U.S. Oil Sands strip mine project.
Uintah County Undersheriff John Laursen said that approximately 10 deputies from his office and three agents from the Utah Attorney General's Office made the arrests. Members of the Grand County Sheriff’s Office also arrived at the scene just after the confrontation between the protesters blocking the road and law enforcement.
Laursen described the scene as one that escalated quickly from a peaceful protest to one that suddenly became physical.
“The folks who had chained themselves to the equipment were very polite and cooperative,” he said.
“But as we were removing them, the six other protesters who tried to block the road created quite a melee. There were some fisticuffs.”
Denise Davis, a spokesperson for UTSR, said that climate change protesters were peaceful and that they had suffered under “selective enforcement of laws designed to make peaceful protest a felony.”
Davis also denied allegations of property destruction.
“The protests have been brave and sustained but peaceful and nondestructive,” she said.
Grand County Sheriff Steve White acknowledged that protesters are part of the reason for the command center, but he said that law enforcement just wants to establish a presence in the area.
“There have been some oil field thefts and other activities going on up there,” he said. “As a matter of fact, this is something we've been thinking about for years.”
White said that the project is a joint effort with Uintah County and SITLA. He said they want to establish a camp trailer and a place to park some ATVs so they can have a base of operations should law enforcement personnel be needed in the remote area.
Davis said that she is “perplexed” by the sheriff's request to establish a remote police post in the Book Cliffs when none of the protests have occurred in the Grand County portion of the mine site.
“It is very unfortunate that Grand County Sheriff Steven White is proposing to further step up surveillance and intimidation of peaceful protesters while continuing to ignore the air and water pollution that is resulting from leaking wells, tanks and toxic ponds of oil and gas waste that continue to threaten Grand County residents and visitors,” she said.
U.S. Oil Sands holds a lease to strip mine up to 32,000 acres of land - an area equivalent to approximately half the size of Arches National Park. A portion of the lease is in Grand County.
Environmentalists claim that the operation will severely impact the environment by polluting groundwater, displacing wildlife and destroying large swaths of wilderness.
“The Book Cliffs have been called the Serengeti of Utah and they are of significance to all Americans,” Davis said.
Living Rivers executive director John Weisheit said that the Utah Division of Air Quality never should have issued permits for the tar sands mine. His organization waged a legal battle on the grounds that sufficient water wasn't available for the tar sands mine, and that what groundwater did exist was at risk of contamination.
Weisheit wants to know why the citizens of Grand County are paying for security up on the Book Cliffs, particularly as it relates to U.S. Oil Sands and the PR Spring Mine.
“The job of the Grand County Sheriff is to protect its citizens,” Weisheit said. “This is a foreign corporation. Power companies and other industries hire security guards, why aren't they (U.S. Oil Sands)?”
Canyon Country Rising Tide spokesperson Sarah Stock agreed.
"This is yet another example of public money being used to facilitate tar sands development,” she said.
“The real danger to our community is tar sands, oil shale, and unregulated oil and gas development, not peaceful protesters. If the Grand County Sheriff's Department has extra time and money to burn, they should help the understaffed BLM inspect and enforce regulations on the thousands of potentially leaking oil and gas wells in the state."
Torgerson said that he respects the rights of people and their views, and he fully expects protesters to return to the site when the weather improves.
“We welcome the right of free speech,” he said. “We just hope they will respect private property.”