The first tar sands strip mining project in the U.S. is gearing up to start operation in Utah, but not without resistance from a group that announced on May 29 that it is setting up a permanent protest vigil at the site.
The Canadian company US Oil Sands Inc. (USOS) leased over 32,000 acres in the Bookcliffs range in eastern Utah near the PR Spring campground for what it calls the first bitumen mining operation in the U.S. Bitumen is the sticky black substance also known as asphalt, with a viscosity similar to cold molasses.
US Oil Sands plans to dig up huge amounts of sand containing the bitumen and then heat the sand to release the bitumen, separate out the sand, and then use solvents to thin the gooey substance enough so it will flow through pipes and into trucks. USOS got the green light to go ahead with the pilot project from the Utah Water Quality Board in 2012, and then solicited investors to fund the project.
In mid-May, USOS announced (pdf) that its tar sands pilot project was fully funded, and they are purchasing equipment and moving into the operational phase.
But none of the citizen and environmental groups that moved the moratoria and bans forward in the last 18 months in the six cities representing over 400,000 citizens, including Fort Collins, Loveland (pending), Longmont, Boulder, Broomfield, and Lafayette, have been informed about the meetings or invited to attend.
The citizen-led anti-fracking battles in Colorado ratcheted up a notch May 22 when the Colorado Community Rights Network announced that Ballot Initiative #75, the Community Right Amendment (also known as “Right to Local Self-Government”), has cleared its final legal hurdle with the Colorado Supreme Court and has the go-ahead to start gathering signatures to get the measure on the November ballot.
Initiative #75 would give cities and towns the right to regulate or ban outright any for-profit enterprise that threatens the environment or the health, safety or welfare of its citizens. In addition to letting localities regulate drilling as they see fit, it would give citizens the right to ban pursuits such as hazardous waste dumps, factory farms or genetically modified crop farming within their cities' borders.
Currently, only the state has the authority to regulate oil and gas drilling in Colorado, but as drilling companies exploit more land for energy production, rigs are springing up next to homes, schools, playgrounds and shopping areas. Citizens are alarmed when they find out they have little power to stop it.
Each dot on the map represents a documented spill, and each dot links to a full details about the spill as reported to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
A midwife in Vernal, Utah, has raised a red flag about a spike in the number of stillbirths and neonatal deaths in the small town in 2013.
The concern has arisen alongside explosive growth in drilling and fracking in the area. Energy companies have flocked to Vernal in the last few years to develop massive oil and gas fields beneath Uintah County.
The midwife, Donna Young, who has worked in the Vernal area for 19 years, delivered the first stillborn baby she's seen in all her years of practice in May 2013. Doctors could not determine a reason for the baby's death.
While visiting the local cemetery where the baby was buried, Young noticed other fresh graves of babies who were stillborn or who died shortly after birth.
Young started researching obituaries and mortuary records on stillbirths and neonatal deaths and found a large spike in the number of infant deaths in the Vernal area in recent years. She documented 11 other incidents in 2013 in which Vernal mothers had given birth to stillborn babies or in which babies died within a few days of being born. Vernal's full-time population is only about 9,800.
Young found that the rate of neonatal deaths in Vernal has climbed from about equivalent to the national average in 2010 to six times the national average in 2013.
Along with the surge in oil and gas drilling in the Vernal area in the last few years, the winter air in the Uintah basin, where Vernal sits, has become dense with industrial smog generated by drilling rigs, pipelines, wells and increased traffic.
Last month, the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment announced it would investigate a spike in rare fetal anomalies reported in Garfield County, the second most heavily-drilled and fracked county in the state.
The newly released report, which the department quietly put on its website without public announcement, does little to address fears about the safety of drilling and fracking in Colorado's communities.
The report says that overall, the department found no single predominant risk factor common among the majority of women studied.
The agency studied about a dozen risk factors, most of which focused on the mothers' personal characteristics and behavior, such as ethnicity; alcohol, tobacco and drug use; use of medications, vitamins and supplements; and family history.
But the report has glaring gaps in what the state examined, and what it didn't.
Scientists affiliated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have determined that oil and gas operations on Colorado's front range are pumping almost three times more methane and seven times more benzene into the air than previously estimated.
Researchers collected air samples from an airplane over Weld County over two days in May 2012. Previous studies measured air samples taken at ground-level or from a 985-foot tall tower. This is the first study to measure airborne contaminants from an airplane.
Researchers found that 24,000 active oil and gas wells active in Weld County in May 2012 were emitting a total of 19.3 tons of methane each hour, or about triple the amount the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated would come from industry-reported emissions.
Drilling operations emitted benzene at a rate of 380 pounds each hour, or about seven times more than the 50 pounds an hour the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment estimated based on industry-reported data.