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Legislative Opposition to Uinta Basin Railway as Final Permits and Approvals Hang in the Balance

Bipartisan momentum against the Uinta Basin Railway project continues to gain steam (pun intended) across western Colorado, led by Senator Dylan Roberts, D-Avon. The rail proposal has been covered extensively by Ark Valley Voice, as a rail project with potentially devastating environmental and economic damage to our mountain region.

Today the group sent a letter urging Biden Administration officials to suspend the proposed Uinta Basin Railway Project. The letter was addressed to Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, expressing concern over the financing and potential environmental impacts of the project. It calls on the Administration to oppose it.

“As legislators who represent the areas of Western Colorado that would be impacted directly by the Uinta Basin Railway Project, we write to share our significant concerns and opposition to this project,” the lawmakers wrote. “We ask that you carefully consider this project’s potential impact, including the devastating damage it could do to public health, our water resources, our environment, and our economy when making the respective decisions charged to your departments.”

The proposed Uinta Basin Railway Project would involve the shipment of heated, waxy crude oil from Utah through Colorado’s mountain towns and communities, totaling as much as 350,000 barrels on ten, two-mile long trains per day. The proposed route would closely track the path of the headwaters of the Colorado River and its tributaries, which irrigates millions of acres of farmland and provides water to more than 40 million people in the Western United States.

The project requires multiple approvals. In July 2022, the U.S. Forest Service actually approved the Utah-based project. But it hasn’t yet issued a special use permit. More than a year ago, the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB), which oversees the nation’s railroads, apparently approved the Utah project, even though during the vote, the STB Chairman Martin Oberman registered a “no” vote.

There is a lot of money involved: estimates are that the new railway could ship up to 4.6 billion gallons of waxy crude oil a year to travel Colorado’s Central Corridor rail line on its way to Gulf Coast refineries.

If the Tennessee Pass line were to be included at some point in the rail shipment plans (perhaps not at first, but talks have been had for at least the past two years), it could bring some of the trains loaded with waxy crude oil over the pass, down the Arkansas River Valley, and along the Arkansas River where an accident would mean environmental and economic disaster.

That accidents would most certainly happen is apparently built into the projections. In their letter Bennet and Neguse, both Democrats, wrote that the Forest Service’s own “flawed” projections predict at least one oil spill derailment every four years in Colorado. Repeat: one every four years. That’s just the spills.

Then there is the wildfire risk from heated oil tanker cars likely to spark wildfires in remote canyons. If we thought the wildfires, and then the mudslides after the wildfires were bad, just think what could happen when heated oil tankers spark.

The letter from Colorado’s state legislators continued: “In light of the recent train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, and other high-profile train accidents across the country over the years, a spill on this rail line is not only a possibility, it is likely … Given the heated nature of this transport and the widespread drought we are experiencing, this project also further increases the risk of wildfire ignition across the Western Slope. By threatening our water supply and increasing wildfire risk, this project would be truly catastrophic to our constituents, our communities, and our environment.”

Lawmakers further expressed concern over the potential use of public taxpayer dollars through government-approved tax-exempt private activity bonds (PABs) to finance the project, and urged the Administration to reject the plan.

“Our concerns with this project are grave and cannot be understated,” they wrote. “While we understand and support the desire to increase domestic energy supply, the potential negative impacts of this project far outweigh any economic benefit. Imperiling the future of our environment and the natural resources we depend on and treasure is not a decision that should be taken lightly.”

The letter was signed by: Speaker Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, Senator Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, Senator Perry Will, R-New Castle, Representative Meghan Lukens, D-Steamboat Springs, Representative Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango, and Representative Elizbeth Velasco, D-Glenwood Springs.