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A recently approved 88-mile railway in northeast Utah is once again heating up conversations in Colorado, which is wary of oil shale, or waxy crude, being hauled on the rails enroute to the Gulf Coast.

The Board of Chaffee County Board of Commissioners weighed in on the topic at Monday’s work session with Sara Cassidy, liaison with Colorado Midland & Pacific Railway (CMPR).

Cassidy said the railway recently filed a revised application with the Surface Transportation Board that stipulates no hauling of hazardous materials on the Tennessee Pass Line should the year-old railway get the go-ahead to operate. A subsidiary of Rio Grande Pacific, CMPR secured a lease for the rails from Union Pacific and applied in late December of 2020 for expedited approval to run trains on the dormant, 160-mile stretch between Gypsum and Cañon City.

CMPR cited “limited scope” as a reason to eliminate an extensive review of the proposal, and ultimately the transportation board rejected the request in late March, 2021.

Critics who had raised environmental concerns breathed a sigh of relief, but kept an eye on the Utah proposal. Groups and individuals had rallied against the possibility of oil trains using the Tennessee Pass Line should the Uinta Basin Railway be approved. The Uintah Basin in northeast Utah is rich in oil shale deposits, and because of the thick, waxy nature of the material (not the same product as shale oil), it cannot move well by pipeline. Hence the emphasis on a short rail line to move the product out to the main rails.

The Unita Basin Railway is a proposed link to the oil shale reserves of northeastern Utah.

Rio Grande Pacific plans to operate the Uinta Basin Railway, which received final approval from the Surface Transportation Board Dec. 15, 2021. The announcement reignited conversations in Colorado, most notably in Eagle County, which will likely see any new oil-train traffic resulting from the railway’s approval.

While there are no current plans to route any of this traffic onto the Tennessee Pass Line, which was shut down in 1997, observers estimate the Uintah Basin will be sending up to 10 trains of waxy crude through Colorado every day enroute to Gulf Coast refineries. That route would run through Grand Junction, along the Colorado River through Eagle County, and up through Fraser and the Moffat Tunnel to Denver.

In January, Eagle County’s commissioners approved a plan to take the county’s opposition to U.S. District Court, citing “procedural errors” in the approval of the Uinta Basin Railway. They say the project was approved before the completion of an environmental impact statement and failed to examine “indirect” environmental impacts along connecting lines.

The recent movement on the Uinta Basin Railway has not escaped Chaffee County’s commissioners, who last year partnered with a regional consortium for legal counsel. The group hired Kaplan Kirsch & Rockwell, a firm with a considerable background in rail and transit litigation.

In Monday’s session, Cassidy framed Colorado Midland & Pacific’s stance as one of partnership and exploring the needs of communities on the Tennessee Pass route. She emphasized that hazardous materials were not in the picture.

Last year, Colorado Midland & Pacific consistently stated that it had no intentions to run oil trains on Tennessee Pass and that it wanted to work with communities to explore their visions of passenger rail and possibly local freight. Upon its revised application with the STB, Colorado Midland appears to have the same message. “I don’t have any new information,” she told the commissioners. “Our message is consistent.”

Cassidy said the railway wants to “explore 21st-century applications for rail and other local services that might be needed,” and said there was particular interest in the area serving the Eagle County Regional Airport.

Commissioner Keith Baker said constituents remain interested in commuter rail for the future, then launched into the broader topic at hand – the Uinta Basin Railway approval. “A lot of people are following that with the idea that it’s going to add ripple effects,” he said. Cassidy replied that Colorado Midland was “not connected to any projects outside of the Tennessee Pass corridor.”

Baker, who serves on numerous transportation boards, including the Statewide Transportation Advisory Committee, has been the most vocal on the matter among Chaffee County’s commissioners. Repeating what he said several times last year, he said that once a rail project receives approval from the Surface Transportation Board, “there’s not much limitation on what can be transported.”

He said that in essence, that decision is up to “the goodwill” of railroads. Cassidy repeated that CMPR had filed a revised application with the intention of not hauling hazardous materials.

Commissioner Rusty Granzella brought up the financial burdens of rehabilitating items such as railroad crossings, and Cassidy said “that’s a very real cost that would have to be considered.”

Commissioner Greg Felt then swung the conversation back to the Uinta Basin Railway and additional oil trains moving through Colorado.

“I know you’re sick and tired of hearing this,” he said. “Is the product coming out of the Uintah Basin a hazardous material?”

“I’m only speaking about the potential plans for Tennessee Pass,” Cassidy replied. “I don’t want to speculate or make assumptions about something elsewhere outside of this project.” Felt asked his question again – was the waxy crude coming out of the Uintah Basin considered hazardous material?

“Yes, hazardous materials would be excluded,” Cassidy said, adding that hazardous materials were federally defined. “So, then I guess you don’t know whether that product from the Uintah Basin is a hazardous material by the federal definition,” he said. “I don’t,” she replied. I don’t have anything to add about that.”

It appears there is room for confusion. Not all oils are classified as hazardous materials, according to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). Federal hazardous materials regulations require shippers to properly classify the material they are shipping.

In an email response to Ark Valley Voice, the FRA said the best way to know is to contact the producer directly “to determine if their oil meets the requirements to be classified as a hazardous material.”

Featured image: the old railway station in Salida prior to the shutdown of the Tennessee Pass Line in 1997.