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Utah legislature to re-examine mineral extraction on Great Salt Lake

Posted at 3:10 PM, Aug 21, 2023

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Legislature is planning to re-examine mineral extraction on the Great Salt Lake as the state races to reverse water level declines.

"We need to look at how much water is being extracted from the lake. We need to look at production limits. There’s a whole host of things statutorily we can be looking at," said House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, who is planning to open a bill on the subject.

The proposed legislation follows a dispute between the state and a major mineral extraction company on the Great Salt Lake. FOX 13 News was at a meeting where Utah's Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands accused Compass Minerals of doing un-permitted lithium extraction. At that same meeting, the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District expressed concerns about the amount of water involved as the state grapples with reversing the Great Salt Lake's historic declines and preventing an ecological crisis.

The company vehemently denies it is doing anything improper. In a letter to the Utah State Legislature's water development commission shared with FOX 13 News, the company's CEO took issue with state characterizations of what Compass was doing and insisted it was not only being transparent — but within its rights to extract lithium.

"In our more than a half-century of operating on the Great Salt Lake, our company has always prioritized responsible operations, working hand-in-hand with the State of Utah and numerous other stakeholders on the lake to create significant economic value while ensuring a healthy lake environment. During that time, we have also acted consistent with our established, longstanding mineral and water rights," CEO Kevin Crutchfield wrote.

But in an interview with FOX 13 News on Monday, the House Majority Leader suggested that agreements the state has — as well as how much water these mineral extractions take from the lake — ought to be looked at. He pointed out that many agreements are decades old and from a time when there was an abundance of water in the Great Salt Lake.

"Compass Minerals has the water right to take what is equivalent to almost six Echo Reservoirs... out of the Great Salt Lake every year. They have not been taking that much, luckily, but they have the right to do that. We need to look at that," Rep. Schultz said. "Then there’s the potable water that’s also a concern. We don’t have the water to meet our demand right now, our current demands for our growth. So we really need to think how we approach these things."

Rep. Schultz said he envisioned his legislation looking at everything from how much water is used, to production methods and royalty payments due to the state for extraction.

"We're spending a significant amount of money right now and it’s taxpayer money... to get more water into the lake. If we can use the money the lake generates to fund that so the taxpayers don’t have to fund that? It’s a win-win for everybody," he said.

Compass Minerals did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Rep. Schult'z proposed legislation. It would not be the only one subject to the legislation, but other companies that do extraction on the lake. A representative for U.S. Magnesium declined to comment on Rep. Schultz's proposed legislation until they saw specific bill language.

"While we understand the importance of mineral extraction industries for Utah's economy, it's crucial that we strike a balance between economic benefits and environmental protection," Alex Veilleux, a policy associate at the environmental group HEAL Utah, said in a statement to FOX 13 News. "We recognize that these industries contribute to jobs and revenue, but this should not come at the cost of jeopardizing our natural resources or the health of our residents."

The Great Salt Lake hit a historic low last year as a result of water diversion, drought and a changing climate. It has alarmed state leaders and the public. A drying lake can lead to toxic dust being blown into populated areas (arsenic is among the naturally occurring minerals in the lake bed); reduced snowpack and harms to public health and wildlife. The Utah State Legislature has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into water conservation measures aimed at reducing demand for water and reversing the lake's declines.

Rep. Schultz acknowledged the legislation could pick an ugly political fight with a big industry on the Great Salt Lake. But he said saving the lake is their top priority and he would not rule out a special session of the Utah State Legislature to get the bill through.

"We cannot put all the burden on the citizens of the state and let the businesses that are out on the Great Salt Lake just get away with what they’ve got away with for years. It’s working together. We need them to work with us and hopefully that happens," he said.

This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late. Read all of our stories at greatsaltlakenews.org.