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Lawsuits challenge water rights granted for nuclear power plant

Deseret News

 SALT LAKE CITY — Multiple groups hoping to kill plans for a proposed twin-reactor nuclear power plant in Emery County are asking the district court to overturn the Utah state engineer's decision granting 53,600 acre-feet of water to the project.

Lawsuits were filed late Tuesday in the 6th and 7th district courts — representing the two blocks of water awarded by Kent Jones in late January — asserting Jones failed to follow the law when he made his decision.

“The state engineer had an obligation to ask hard questions and take a close look at the withdrawal of so much Utah water for such a risky enterprise,” said Sarah Fields with Moab-based Uranium Watch. “He did not do that. He did not meet the minimal standard for the review of a water right appropriation."

Aaron Tilton's Blue Castle Holdings is proposing to take the water from the Green River for use in the cooling process at the proposed plant, which would be located near the city of Green River in Emery County and generate 3,000 megawatts of electricity.

Tilton, a former state lawmaker from Utah County who is president and chief executive officer of the company, said Wednesday he believes Jones' decision will have no problem prevailing in district court.

"We are very confident it will be upheld. The state engineer obviously denied the protestants on the same basis of what issues they are raising now," Tilton said. "Water law is very settled, very predictable, and certainly the two years the state engineer spent looking at our change application and the use of the water at the plant was fairly lengthy, in depth and very detailed."

The water in question is already owned but unused by a pair of water conservancy districts and would be leased under long-term contracts that would generate a financial windfall to the rural areas of Kane and San Juan counties.

Led by HEAL Utah and Uranium Watch, challengers to the water rights claim Jones failed to show the nuclear reactors won’t interfere with other water rights or that the withdrawals are sustainable for the health of the Green River ecosystem.

Matt Pacenza, policy director of HEAL Utah, said judicial review of Jones' decision will bring a necessary and critical layer of scrutiny to the issue.

“Gov. Gary Herbert has said he hasn’t yet made up his mind on nuclear power, but meanwhile his administration approves water for the Green River nukes with only a cursory review,” he said. “We felt we had no choice but to go to court so that someone could actually take a close look a this project.”

HEAL Utah and Uranium Watch are joined by 16 other plaintiffs, including the Utah Rivers Council, Living Rivers and the Center for Water Advocacy. Others include businesses that depend on the Green River such as Moki Mac River Expeditions and Holiday River Expeditions, and several residents from Green River, Moab and Salt Lake City.

Pacenza said Jones also failed to consider the financial viability of the project, and while acknowledging that there were many unknowns associated with proposal, wrongly deferred to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

"We hope the court will unearth some more facts about the various issues that show what a really bad idea this is," Pacenza said.