Plan to ship Utah oil by train draws fire from Colorado lawmakers

Several Colorado elected officials say federal agencies that approved a plan to run daily crude oil trains from Utah through Glenwood Canyon and Denver shrugged off the potential “downline” impacts and need to take a closer look.

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and Congressman Joe Neguse have asked the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct a supplemental review of the Uinta Basin Railway project to more carefully consider the risks to Colorado communities and the environment, including water and the climate.

Several western Colorado cities and counties are lending their support to a consolidated lawsuit by environmental organizations and Eagle County. They contend the environmental analysis of the rail project, which is being pursued by seven eastern Utah counties, is flawed because it glosses over the potential impacts of running as many as five trains carrying up to 350,000 barrels of waxy crude a day through Colorado.

The destination would be refineries on the Gulf Coast.

“I think they looked only at the risk to Utah and that’s why we’ve been pushing the Biden administration for an additional, comprehensive review to consider, among other things, the environmental risk to Colorado,” Bennet said in an interview.

The federal Surface Transportation Board wrote the Environmental Impact Statement for the project that will build an 88-mile line in Utah to connect the Uinta Basin to the national rail network. The EIS was approved in 2021.

The U.S. Forest Service issued permits in 2022 to build on roadless national forest land.

Critics of the public-private project question the plan by the project’s organizers to seek $2 billion in tax-exempt private activity bonds to finance construction. Sen. John Hickenlooper has joined Bennet and Neguse in asking Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to consider the risks of approving the bonds.

A major focus of opponents is the potential damage to the Colorado River if the train derails.

“The train derailment in East Palestine (Ohio) lays bare just how dangerous moving hazardous materials by rail can be for the environment and the communities they pass through,” Bennet said.

Several cars of a freight train derailed Feb. 3 on the edge of East Palestine, near the Pennsylvania state line. Eleven of the cars were carrying hazardous material and toxic chemicals were released in a fire.

A derailment along the Colorado River could be catastrophic for the water supply relied on by 40 million people in the West, including 30 Indian tribes, Bennet said.

Western Colorado communities fear the fallout if train cars carrying the oil went off the tracks and into the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon along Interstate 70, affecting the state’s vital east-west corridor.

“The canyon is a very fragile place”

The threat of closures of I-70 has grown in the aftermath of wildfires because there’s no or little vegetation in spots to stop the torrents of water and mud rushing down the canyon’s steep slopes during heavy rains.

Glenwood Springs’ economy is driven by tourism and outdoor recreation, such as rafting and fly fishing, and having access to the Colorado and Roaring Fork rivers is crucial, said Mayor Jonathan Godes.

“If something happens with a derailment in the canyon that would just devastate our community, our economy,” Godes said. “The canyon is a very fragile place.”

Glenwood Springs is one the cities that have filed an amicus brief supporting the lawsuit against the Uinta Basin project.

Ted Zukoski, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the environmental groups suing to set aside the plan, said the trains would be nearly 2 miles long. They will travel through Glenwood and Gore canyons, along the Colorado and Fraser rivers, through the Moffat Tunnel, into the upper Boulder County watershed and Denver.

Besides insufficient focus on the risks to water supplies, opponents say the assessment of the project’s contribution to climate change is inadequate.

“There’s a lot of talk about the Willow (oil) project in Alaska, what a carbon bomb that is,” Zukoski said. “That’s 180,000 barrels per day. This is almost twice that at the top end, 350,000 barrels per day.”

Gov. Jared Polis shares a number of the communities’ concerns about the proposal and continues to monitor the situation and assess the state’s role, spokesman Conor Cahill said in an email.

“Recent events underscore the impacts that rail accidents can have on our communities and the environment, especially those involving hazardous materials,” KC Becker, the EPA regional administrator in Denver, said in a statement. “If the Uinta Basin railway line moves forward, EPA will ensure that the proposed development meets all applicable environmental requirements.”

The EPA didn’t issue permits for the railway, but provided recommendations and comments as part of its responsibilities under the federal Clean Air Act.

There is no need for more review of the Uinta Basin project, which has won federal approval, said Keith Heaton, the executive director of the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition. The group represents the seven Utah counties leading the proposal.

The project’s private participants are Drexel Hamilton Infrastructure Partners and the Rio Grande Pacific Corp.

“We obtained the necessary permits. The rail line will be wholly and entirely in the state of Utah,” Heaton said.

But the impacts won’t stop at the Utah state line, critics counter. The lawsuit seeking to overturn approval of the railway sayss the environmental review ignores potential impacts outside Utah “by erroneously labeling them mere ‘downline’ effects, rather than direct or indirect impacts of the Board’s Decision.”

The EIS by the Surface Transportation Board acknowledges the risk of an increase in derailments, saying the line will experience roughly one new accident per year of a loaded crude oil train.

“Yet, while the Board purported to analyze and mitigate a broad spectrum of risks in Utah (the project study area), including wildfires, soil erosion, landslides, and avalanches,  it did not give the I-70 corridor in Colorado the same consideration,” according to the lawsuit.

Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said freight trains carrying oil from Utah already roll through Glenwood Canyon and onto Denver on the Union Pacific line.

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