Colorado officials cite Ohio train derailment in opposition of shipping ‘waxy crude’ along Colorado River |

Colorado officials cite Ohio train derailment in opposition of shipping ‘waxy crude’ along Colorado River

If built, a new railroad spur could lead to five, two-mile trains carrying heated crude along the water source for 40 million people

The Grizzly Creek burn scar along the ridges above Glenwood Canyon as seen from the air on Monday, Aug. 25, 2020. Eagle County is opposing 100-car long trains carrying waxy crude on railways along the Colorado River, where in areas like Glenwood Canyon, the tracks are yards from the water.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

Colorado’s representatives in Washington, D.C., are pressuring officials with two federal agencies to take a closer look at a proposed railway in Utah that would allow “waxy crude” to be shipped along the Colorado River.

The Uinta Basin Railway Project is an 88-mile spur that would connect oilfields in northeastern Utah to the existing national railway network, allowing it to get to the Gulf of Mexico for refining. The project already has regulators’ approval.

Earlier this week the project was approved for $2 billion in tax-exempt bonds from a group of counties in Colorado’s western neighbor to build the new track, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, though the bonds still require an OK from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

This new line could eventually lead to five two-mile trains of heated crude traversing through Colorado each day, just feet above the primary water source for 40 million people in the Southwestern United States.

The biggest fear expressed by local and federal officials is what would happen if a train were to derail into the river — a worry that seems more realistic following a train derailment in February that led to a spill of toxic material in East Palestine, Ohio.

“A train derailment that spills oil in the headwaters of the river would be catastrophic not only to our state’s water supplies, wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation assets, but also the broader (Colorado) River Basin,” wrote Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Joe Neguse in a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak on Monday, March 6.

“It is beyond reckless to expose these sensitive areas of our state to these additional risks,” the two Democrats wrote.

On Thursday, March 9, Sen. John Hickenlooper of Colorado joined the two members of Congress in a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg asking him to consider the risks of the project before signing off on bonds to fund the project, which has seen significant cost increases. While initially estimated at $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion, the Salt Lake Tribune reports it is now expected to cost $2.9 billion.

“While we support boosting domestic energy production for the benefit of American consumers and our allies abroad, private-sector investments should be based on consumer demands where they pertain to mature technologies with existing robust markets,” the letter reads. “We urge you to seriously consider the risks of providing federal cost assistance to this project.”

If the project were to move forward, the trains wouldn’t ever be in Routt County, though they would come close. In October, Routt County commissioners signaled their intention to join an Eagle County effort to oppose the new railway.

The trains would travel through disaster-prone Glenwood Canyon before entering Grand County, eventually making their way through the Moffat Tunnel toward Denver.

“If USDA or other federal agencies conducted a supplemental review as Sen. Bennet and Rep. Joe Neguse requested in their letter to Secretary Vilsack on Monday, there could potentially be a public comment period,” a spokesperson from Bennet’s office said. “Sen. Bennet and his office are continuing to explore all options for blocking this dangerous project.”

The crude — called “waxy” because it needs to be heated during transport to avoid solidifying — can only be refined a limited number of places to make gasoline and other products. The Surface Transportation Board, a little-known federal regulator, approved the railway in December 2021, finding it would increase competition and support job growth in Utah’s oilfields.

The U.S. Forest Service, which is under the purview of Vilsack, approved a special use permit for the line to travel through Ashley National Forest last summer, though officials and environmental groups that oppose the line say the environmental assessment failed to fully consider down-rail impacts.

“The disaster unfolding in East Palestine, Ohio, is a terrible reminder that train derailments do occur and that the damage from transporting hazardous materials by rail can be catastrophic,” Bennet and Neguse wrote to Vilsack. “We urge you to prevent this dangerous project from moving forward until a robust supplemental review can be completed.”

Neguse, who represents Routt County in the U.S. House, and Bennet also pressed President Joe Biden’s Administration to conduct an additional review on the project in July.

In the letter to Buttigieg, the representatives also expressed concern about what they say would be an unprecedented move to use the tax-exempt federal bonds for a project that largely moves oil and lacks a clear benefit to public transportation.

“The project has always represented a real tradeoff of environmental and safety risks against the potential for economic upsides,” they wrote. “While the risks to Colorado’s environment and local communities remain real, the developers’ stated need for tax-free funding suggests the economic benefits of this project may be overstated.”

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