Routt County intends to join Eagle County effort opposing shipment of waxy crude along Colorado River

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

Routt County intends to join Eagle County’s effort to stop 100-tanker long trains transporting heated “waxy crude” along the banks of the Colorado River every day as it makes its way from Utah to the Gulf of Mexico for refinement.

The Surface Transportation Board, a little known federal regulator that has authority over new rail lines, approved a new 88-mile stretch of track between oilfields in Northeastern Utah and a connection with the existing national rail network in December.

The crude — called waxy because it needs to be heated during transport to avoid becoming solid — would be routed through Grand Junction along Interstate 70 across Colorado, through disaster-prone Glenwood Canyon and into Grand County, eventually making its way through the Moffatt Tunnel toward Denver. From there it would go south or east toward the Gulf Coast.

The line could move between 50,000 and 350,000 barrels of oil each day, up to 5 billion barrels a year, according to the Colorado Sun.

“What happens if that waxy crude that’s heated ends up in the Colorado River?” asked Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry, at a joint meeting between county leaders in Yampa on Monday, Oct. 24.

“Which there’s a really good chance,” Routt Commissioner Tim Corrigan added. “There is a lot of places where the tracks are right next to the river.”

Routt County Attorney Erick Knaus told commissioners earlier Monday that Routt County’s involvement would be to sign on to an amicus brief in the case that Eagle County has filed. Signing on to a brief like this isn’t uncommon for the county when it feels it has an interest in the outcome of the proceeding.

The proposed route isn’t ever in Routt County — though Corrigan noted the tracks do get close to the Routt-Eagle county line. The interest the county would have, Knaus said, would be to ensure that the Surface Transportation Board is properly taking into account environmental impacts of similar new lines.

“(Eagle County’s) position is that this was not done properly,” Knaus said. “The tie in (for Routt County) would be we want to hold the (Surface Transportation Board’s) feet to the fire (and) make sure that they do consider environmental impacts.”

A primary reason the train line, called the Uinta Basin Railway, was proposed is because of limitations around transporting waxy crude. It isn’t liquid enough to be moved in a pipeline and regulations limit the amount that can be transported on trucks. There are also limited refineries that can make gasoline and other products with the fossil fuel.

The Surface Transportation Board found that the new line would increase competition by giving shippers new product to move and would support more jobs in Utah’s northeast oil fields.

The environmental review of the new line assesses issues like wildfire risk and potential accidents like a derailment, but only looked at these within the confines of the new railway, and not the entire route the crude would be shipped along, including the stretch through Colorado.

“What we’re contesting is the actual approval of the new rail from the source of the oil,” said Eagle County Commissioner Matt Scherr. “The approval for the line, of course, is connected to environmental impacts not just all the way along the line … but to climate as well.”

Knaus said Routt County getting involved likely wouldn’t lead to much work for his office or the county in general, though it does allow the county an opportunity to provide information to the court. Routt County Manager Jay Harrington said the ask doesn’t include any money now, “but it might be nice in the future.”

“Somebody else would be doing the work here,” Knaus said.

One question Knaus said he did have would be whether opposing these trains routing through Eagle County could lead the plan to change and send trains on tracks through Routt County. That seems unlikely though, as there aren’t existing tracks connecting Routt County to Utah.

Routt County commissioners haven’t officially approved the county joining the brief, but indicated that was their intention on Monday.

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