Vernal Justice 

Environmental activists have their day in court

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There are good reasons to take a trip to Vernal. Dinosaur bones, for one. Perhaps you have dealings with the Uintah Basin's booming oil & gas industry but don't choose to live where the air can be more toxic than in Salt Lake City or Los Angeles. Maybe you're just passing through to a Colorado herbal dispensary. I recently made the trek for another reason.

On Jan. 8, 2015, 25 environmental activists previously arrested in two incidents in September 2014 for protesting outside permitted areas had their day in court. Protesters were targeting the first tar-sands mining operations on acreage managed by the School & Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA). The state agency oversees 4.5 million acres held in trust for Utah's schools that generate revenue from mineral and fossil-fuel extraction leases. In 2014, for example, Salt Lake City School District's cut was about $1.5 million.

Who doesn't want more money for education? But there's a catch. Squeezing a barrel—about 250 pounds—of oil from 2 tons of tar sands (also called oil or bituminous sands) is one of the filthiest ways to produce energy. Unlike liquid crude, these "tight reserves" require strip mining of the ore as well as the use of chemical solvents and lots of hard-to-come-by water to turn it into a liquid. It must also be transported in what will involve endless convoys of traffic-clogging tanker trucks on our highways, followed by processes in Wasatch Front refineries that will add even more junk to our already foul atmosphere.

Mining tar sands has impacted an area the size of Florida in northern Canada, where the heavy metals released are thought to be impacting the health of the native peoples living downstream. Nevermind that we're still talking about a fossil fuel, the burning of which will further exacerbate the growing global climate crisis. Tar sands are the polar opposite of solar panels and wind turbines.

Putting a halt to such a damaging, poorly conceived and questionably legal process is what prompted the activists with Utah Tar Sands Resistance, Peaceful Uprising and other individuals to put their freedom on the line and do more than just hold signs and chant songs in the middle of the boonies where tar-sands operations have begun. Their acts of civil disobedience included entering the facilities, chaining themselves to equipment and resisting arrest.

But something happened on the way to prison sentences. The legal eagles on both sides of the issue agreed that saddling a bunch of idealistic 20-somethings with felonies and sending them to jail for up to five years with heavy fines might not be the best way to serve the public good or protect the rule of law.

One of the protesters was law student Ashlyn Ruga. Her father, Salt Lake City businessman and lawyer Jonathan Ruga, believed his daughter's cause was just and supported her dissent. He headed for Vernal, got the bail reduced from $112,000 to $4,500 for his daughter and her colleagues, and assembled a defense team including civil-liberties attorneys Monte Sleight, Trent Ricks and Greg Skordas, who put in several hundred hours of pro bono work.

In Uintah County prosecutor Mark Thomas, they found someone willing to do the right thing and see justice served in a less exacting way than what the original charges called for. Felonies were reduced to misdemeanors, and plea deals turned jail time into community service of no more than 120 hours for the various defendants. The most affable judge I've seen in a courtroom, Edwin Peterson, went out of his way to ensure fairness and justice could co-exist.

I rode back to Salt Lake City with three members of the defense team to discuss the case and the law in general, and my opinion of lawyers went up. During those four hours, I learned that Sleight and Ricks put the right to civil protest and the exercise of free speech ahead of their own personal views (which tend to lean left and green). As such they'd volunteered in May 2014 to provide assistance for states' rights protesters who rode ATVs up Recapture Canyon in San Juan County in defiance of the BLM that had closed the trail to protect archeological sites. That group ended up using its own attorneys, but these two barristers were willing to fight for the freedom to dissent, regardless of where folks sit on the political spectrum.

It was a reminder to me that our adversarial legal system calls for zealous representation for all defendants if the law is to be served and our rights are to be preserved, especially in our ability through peaceful protest to influence our society and how we govern ourselves.

Both sides were served in this instance. The state sent a message that breaking the law through civil disobedience will continue to have consequences. The protesters showed their willingness to pay the price for their actions, and again got their message into the media spotlight. They're committed to continuing the fight with ongoing protests at the site, although some must stay at least 300 feet away from it for 18 months. They hope in time to convince even more Uintah Basin residents to look beyond the immediate financial benefit of exploiting dirty fuel reserves and place their health and that of their children ahead of a handful of high-paying jobs and bigger numbers on a bottom line.

So add one more thing you can find in Vernal: justice meted out fairly and with a degree of compassion. It was well worth the trip.

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