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Eagle County leads last-ditch attempt to block Utah oil rail cars from traversing Colorado River

Rafters float the Arkansas River through Browns Canyon National Monument, where a train operator is hoping to revive the Tennessee Pass Line railroad that has been dormant since 1997. (Jason Blevins/The Colorado Sun)
Eagle County is the only Colorado group appealing the approval of a Utah railroad that will direct crude oil through Colorado

Eagle County has fired its first volley in a last-ditch battle to block plans for millions of gallons of crude oil a week rolling along rails next to the Colorado River.

The county joins several environmental groups appealing the Surface Transportation Board’s 2020 approval of an 88-mile stretch of new railroad in Utah connecting the state’s oil fields in Uinta Basin with the national rail network. The decision set the stage for 65,000 to 350,000 barrels of Uinta Basin waxy crude to roll through Colorado every day in 100-tanker-long trains, stretching 10,000 feet, as they cover a route running mostly along the Colorado River.

Eagle County and several environmental groups are asking the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., to overturn the transportation’s board approval, noting the board’s “uninformed decision-making” in its environmental review of the project and “increased risk of environmental harm” from increased oil production and processing.

“The railway not only increases ignition risks for dangerous disasters such as wildfires, it also will lead to the exploitation and burning of fossil fuels contributing to climate change, which will expose Eagle County and its residents to increased threats from extreme heat, extreme drought, and extreme weather, including fire- and flash flood-triggering thunderstorms,” reads a declaration by Eagle County Manager Jeff Shroll in the county’s opening brief filed this month. “In other words, the railway could both be lighting the match and fanning the flames for future impacts on Eagle County.”

The groups an Eagle County point to how the quintupling of oil production in the Uinta Basin – producing up to 430,000 barrels of oil a day and requiring 3,330 new oil wells – would have “indirect effects” that include risks to the environment on the train route between Utah and Gulf Coast refineries and the climate impacts from processing and burning that oil.

Eagle County’s opening brief argues the transportation board’s environmental review also failed to consider the impact of potential oil spills from 35 trains a week carrying millions of gallons of waxy-crude oil, along the Colorado River from the Utah border, through the Grand Valley and Glenwood Canyon into Grand County. Right now the thick crude from the Uinta Basin is trucked to refineries near Salt Lake City, which has limited production from the oil-rich basin and spurred the development of a railway.

Eagle County also took issue with the operator of the new Uinta Basin Railway, Texas-based Rio Grande Pacific Co., which tried to expedite Surface Transportation Board approval of opening rail traffic on the long dormant Tennessee Pass Line between Dotsero and Cañon City. Communities along the mountainous Tennessee Pass railway opposed the call for a swift approval of the plan by Colorado Midland & Pacific, a new company created by Rio Grande Pacific. Colorado Midland & Pacific promised it would only move passengers and freight – not oil – along the Tennessee Pass Line. The transportation board in 2021 denied the railway’s request for a quick approval.

Despite the setback, the Colorado Midland & Pacific railway has approval to reopen the Tennessee Pass Line after environmental review and approvals from the Forest Service and local municipalities. The communities on the line fear Tennessee Pass could become an alternative route for Uinta Basin crude, which needs to be hauled in tankers that must be heated to move the viscous oil. (The whole need for the new Uinta Basin Railway stems from the inability to move Uinta Basin crude through a pipeline and hauling it by trucks limits production.)

Transporting the hazardous cargo over “the remote, steep, winding, and mountainous Tennessee Pass Line would introduce risks associated with accidents, including spills and releases in or near sensitive areas such as water sources, important wildlife habitat areas, and recreational sites in Eagle County,” reads the brief’s declaration.

“The Surface Transportation Board’s failure to evaluate the impact of new traffic on the Tennessee Pass Line harms Eagle County’s interests in and ability to protect the environment and communities of Eagle County,” Shroll wrote.

Environmental groups have worked to disrupt the Uinta Basin Railway plan. In July, officials with the Forest Service rejected the groups’ objections to the new railroad traversing about 12 miles of roadless area in Utah’s Ashley National Forest. The Forest Service’s dismissal of objections to that stretch was a final regulatory hurdle for the Uinta Basin Railway.

Eagle County is carrying a lot of weight for communities that could be impacted by increased oil trains on the Union Pacific railroad across Colorado. It was the only community that raised concerns in the Surface Transportation Board’s review of the plan, so it is the only government with standing in a formal appeal.

Shroll’s letter included a list of 17 Eagle County sites eligible for registration on the National Register of Historic Places, including mining structures and prehistoric camps, that may be threatened by the increased train traffic.

Eagle County attorney Bryan Treu said in an interview that it is an “uphill climb” to overturn the transportation board’s decision, “but we raised a lot of good issues that will have to be addressed.” Treu said the board’s “head-scratching approach” of breaking transportation merits and environmental analysis into separate federal reviews discouraged towns and counties in Colorado from participating, with few even realizing until the process was over how the new railway in Utah might impact their communities.

Boulder, Chaffee, Gilpin and Lake counties have expressed concerns about the Uinta Basin Railway, alongside Salida, Buena Vista, the Eagle River Watershed Council and Colorado’s U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse. But because those concerns were not raised during the transportation board’s review of the railroad proposal, the opposition does not have legal standing in the appeal.

“We certainly don’t feel that we are going at this alone,” Treu said. “We had the foresight to get into this case early on and are happy to carry the torch for those Colorado communities that may not have appreciated the true impacts based on the STB’s procedural deficiencies.”

Read more at The Colorado Sun

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