The Uintah County Sheriff’s Office arrested 21 environmental activists at the PR Springs tar sands site in the Book Cliffs area north of Moab on Monday, July 21.
Protesters from Utah Tar Sands Resistance said that they were attempting to block construction at what is the first major tar sands strip-mine operation in the United States in decades.
A spokeswoman for the environmental group, Jessica Lee, told Moab Sun News that 13 people were arrested for locking themselves to construction equipment at a site operated by a subcontractor to U.S. Oil Sands on Pope Well Ridge Road in Uintah County.
She said an additional six people were arrested after sitting in the road to prevent the removal of those being taken away in two police vans.
Undersheriff John Laursen said that approximately 10 deputies from his office and three agents from the office of the Utah Attorney General 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.”
Laursen said that no pepper spray or other weapons were used during the confrontation. Lee said that two of the activists were injured while being removed from the protest. Laursen confirmed that just one was taken a nearby hospital and treated for a leg injury before being taken to the Uintah County Jail.
Lee said two additional people were arrested when they arrived at the Uintah County Jail in an attempt to learn more about the status of fellow protesters. She described an intimidating presence by law enforcement officials. “There were 10 armed deputies with police dogs standing outside the jail wearing bullet-proof vests,” she said.
Lee said that at one point during the protest at the construction site a deputy released his canine in the vicinity of protesters, though no one was bitten. Laursen said the dogs were released to be able to relieve themselves at a safe distance from protesters .
Laursen said the charges against the 21 include misdemeanors and felonies. Charges included trespass on trust lands, Interference with an arresting officer and conspiracy to commit escape. Some vandalism to signage in the area was also noted by deputies.
Protesters had complained to authorities that four of their vehicles had been vandalized, but the damage was determined to have been caused by bears in the area, Laursen said.
The increasing protest actions come on the heels of several failed legal challenges against the tar sands project over the past year.
Lee said approximately 80 activists have been in the area in recent days.
The strip-mining operation could eventually encompass up to 32,000 acres of land in Uintah and Grand counties – an area close to half the size of Arches National Park. Environmentalists say the project poses major threats to air, water, wildlife and climate.
U.S. Oil Sands CEO Cameron Todd told the Moab Sun News in May that the safety of workers and activists is of the utmost concern to his company. He also said that the project will bring jobs to the area and that they will be utilizing innovative technology to minimize water-use in the dry environment of the surrounding Tavaputs Plateau.
By Tuesday afternoon all 21 had been released from jail. Approximately one-third of those arrested were from Utah, with the remainder coming from many other states including Arizona, California, Illinois, New York, Wisconsin and North Dakota.
Laursen said he welcomes free speech, but doesn't welcome criminals.
“We're happy to see people express their first amendment rights, but it boils down to – let's do it in a peaceful manner," he said.
Lee said her group is undeterred by the arrests.
“Right now we are, of course, worried about our colleagues, but the protests will continue and, if anything, we feel galvanized in our mission to stop tar sands mining in Utah.”