SUWA Files Lawsuit to Stop the Destruction of 125,000 Acres in Utah’s West Desert
Sevier Lake Is a Remote and Largely Undisturbed Area, Devoid of Light or Noise Pollution
August 1, 2023
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Hanna Larsen, Staff Attorney, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA); (801) 428-3992 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Salt Lake City, UT –Yesterday, SUWA filed a lawsuit in federal district court against the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), seeking judicial review of the BLM’s 2019 decision to approve nearly 125,000 acres of potash mining in Utah’s remote West Desert, known as the Sevier Playa Potash (SPP) Project. BLM’s decision violates the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) because it failed to consider the full sweep of environmental impacts from the project and also failed to consider alternatives that would cause less damage to the environment, including migratory birds.
“Sevier Lake and the surrounding lands with wilderness characteristics would be decimated by this project,” said Hanna Larsen, SUWA Staff Attorney. “The area—currently wild and remote—would become an industrial zone filled with evaporation ponds, dikes, roads, powerlines, a processing plant, and a rail loadout facility. The impacts of this industrialization would be clear on both the lakebed and the surrounding public lands, significantly impairing important habitat for migratory birds and adversely affecting air and water quality for decades to come.”
About Sevier Lake and the BLM’s Decision
- Sitting between the Cricket Mountains to the east and the Notch Peak Wilderness Study Area (WSA) to the west, the 125,000-acre Sevier Lake is located in a remote and largely undisturbed area of Utah’s West Desert; an area that is currently entirely devoid of light or noise pollution. Like the Great Salt Lake, Sevier Lake is a highly saline terminal lake that is a remnant of the ancient Lake Bonneville. Although it is fed by the Sevier River, upstream water diversions cause Sevier Lake to be largely dry during certain times of the year.
- When Sevier Lake contains surface waters, as it does during high precipitation years, it supports important stop-over habitat for the millions of migratory birds in the Pacific Flyway. The impacts of the SPP Project will be felt in places like the Notch Peak, King Top, and Howell Peak WSAs by increased light pollution, as well as dust and noise, generated by project operations even if the lakebed is not directly in view.
- In 2019, BLM signed the Record of Decision for the SPP Project, the final step in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. From the Executive Summary: “Peak Minerals, Inc., dba Crystal Peak Minerals (CPM), through agreement controls the rights to develop and operate potassium mineral leases on 117,814 acres of federal lands administered by the BLM and an additional 6,409 acres of potash leases on state lands on or adjacent to the Sevier Playa, for a total of 124,223 acres. CPM proposed to exercise its lease rights by constructing and operating the SPP Project, which will produce at its peak approximately 372,000 tons per year of potassium sulfate, also known as sulfate of potash, and associated minerals over its 32-year lifetime.
- The selected action for the Project is the proposed action, which is based on CPM’s Mining Plan, Plan of Development (POD), and Gravel Pit Mining Plan. Specifically, the BLM has decided to:
- Approve the Mining Plan, which includes full development of the project by CPM.
- Approve issuance of right-of-way (ROW) grants to CPM for construction, operation, maintenance, and decommissioning of off-lease facilities associated with full development of the project.
- Approve the Gravel Pit Mining Plan for sales of mineral materials that are needed to support full development of the project
SUWA seeks the court’s review under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) for violations of NEPA in two categories:
- Failure to Analyze a Range of Reasonable Alternatives
- Failure to Take a Hard Look at Environmental Impacts
Failure to Analyze a Range of Reasonable Alternatives
The Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the SPP Project failed to fully analyze any alternatives that would represent a “middle-ground alternative,” as required by NEPA. In choosing the SPP Project alternatives to analyze in detail, BLM rejected and did not fully analyze several reasonable middle-ground alternatives that would meet BLM’s stated purposes and need, including one proposed by SUWA.
SUWA’s recommended alternative would have reduced the overall footprint of the project and protected crucial wetland habitat by excluding development on the northern end of the lakebed while still allowing minerals extraction on the southern portion of Sevier Lake. BLM’s decision not to analyze in detail SUWA’s alternative (or any other middle-ground alternative) and instead only consider slight variations of the Proposed Action that each have nearly identical environmental impacts violates NEPA.
Violation of NEPA: Failure to Take a Hard Look at Environmental Impacts
Throughout the SPP Project’s NEPA process, SUWA submitted extensive comments highlighting potential impacts on a number of environmental resources including, but not limited to, water quality and quantity, climate, air quality, visual resources, and migratory birds, but BLM failed to take a hard look at the direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts.
For example, BLM failed to analyze the impacts of a reasonably foreseeable future action—the West Desert Water Supply and Conservation Project (formerly known as the Pine Valley Groundwater Development and Pipeline Project)—even though it would pump water from the same regional aquifer as the proposed freshwater supply for the SPP Project. Instead, BLM entirely deferred this analysis to a later date in the West Desert Water EIS. BLM’s failure to analyze these impacts violates NEPA.
- BLM E-planning page for the SPP Project (includes the Record of Decision, FEIS, etc.)
- Big Utah potash project collapses for lack of investors (Oct. 11, 2020 – Salt Lake Tribune)
- Peak Minerals website about the SPP Project
- 2019 Comments from SUWA on the DEIS
- 2015 Comments from the Audubon Council of Utah & Others on EIS Scoping