By Jennifer Dobner
SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - Sheriff's deputies in Utah arrested nearly two dozen environmental protesters who chained themselves to fences and construction equipment on Monday at a tar sands mining project in the remote Book Cliffs mountains, an activist group said.
The Tar Sands Resistance group said about 80 activists set up a "blockade" at the PR Springs mine to highlight what it said would be huge environmental damage if it goes ahead.
"These projects do nothing but devastate the land and pollute the water and air," said TSR spokeswoman Jessica Lee, adding that Monday's action followed years of protests, lawsuits and other attempts to stop the work.
The mine, about 180 miles (290 km) southeast of Salt Lake City, is operated by Calgary-based U.S. Oil Sands [USO.V]. It is set to become Utah's first commercial fuel-producing tar sands operation when it opens next year.
Grading and construction of a processing plant are under way and the site is posted with no-trespassing signs, said Cameron Todd, the company's chief executive.
Thirteen protesters who chained themselves to equipment or fences were arrested by the Uintah County Sheriff's Office, Lee said. Six others were arrested trying to block law enforcement vehicles, and two more TSR supporters were arrested outside the sheriff's office in nearby Vernal, she said.
One of those arrested was taken to a hospital, she added.
The Uintah County Sheriff's Office did not respond to phone calls seeking comment. It was not immediately clear what charges those arrested might face.
Tar sands are a type of soil composed of clay, sand, water and bitumen, a heavy, viscous oil. An estimate by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management puts Utah's total tar sands reserves between as many as 12 billion and 19 billion barrels.
U.S. Oil Sands holds mining leases on 32,000 acres (13,000 hectares) of the state's public land, including 5,900 acres (2,400 hectares) around the PR Springs site. The project is expected to generate 2,000 barrels of oil a day, Todd said.
Environmental groups have unsuccessfully sued to stop it.
"I understand people don't agree with us," said Todd, adding his company also planned extensive mitigation and reclamation work. "We are determined to make this the most environmentally sound oil sands project anywhere."
(Reporting by Jennifer Dobner; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Peter Cooney)