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Colorado opposition to Uinta Basin oil trains keeps chugging along at Glenwood Canyon event

April 10, 2023, 8:20 am

From left, Glenwood Springs Mayor Jonathan Godes, state Sen. Dylan Roberts, U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and Colorado House Speaker Julie McCluskie participate in a press conference near Interstate 70 at the confluence of Grizzly Creek and the Colorado River to voice opposition to the Uinta Basin Railway Project, April 7, 2023. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

Some of Colorado’s top Democratic elected officials on Friday issued their most united and forceful call yet to halt a planned Utah railway expansion that would send up to five two-mile-long oil trains per day through sensitive mountain ecosystems. 

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Joe Neguse of Lafayette joined state and local leaders on the banks of the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon, just yards away from the tracks of the Union Pacific railroad that snakes through the canyon alongside the river and Interstate 70. Not far away were areas burned by the 2020 Grizzly Creek Fire, as well as sections of the highway that were shut down for weeks by post-fire mudslides a year later.

“To say that this canyon is anything but an incredibly fragile place, to say that this river is anything but in crisis in the American West, is to ignore reality,” said Glenwood Springs Mayor Jonathan Godes.

Colorado officials say they’re alarmed by the risks to Glenwood Canyon and other vulnerable areas by the Uinta Basin Railway Project, an 88-mile railroad extension in eastern Utah that would allow oil produced there to be shipped to Gulf Coast refineries through the national rail network — a route that runs directly through Colorado’s central mountain communities and the densely populated Front Range.

Several key permits for the new railway have already been approved by President Joe Biden’s administration, but Bennet and Neguse have called on at least four different federal agencies to conduct additional reviews before the project’s financing is finalized and construction begins.

Mountain communities worry about the threat of the Uinta Basin trains potentially derailing and spilling oil into sensitive watersheds, or sparking dangerous wildfires in Colorado forests that are increasingly at risk from climate change. Officials in Denver, meanwhile, estimate that the Uinta Basin project could quadruple the number of rail cars with hazardous material traveling through the city daily.

The U.S. Surface Transportation Board voted 4-1 in December 2021 to approve the project, and in July of last year the U.S. Forest Service granted a key permit allowing a section of the proposed railroad to cross a protected area in Utah’s Ashley National Forest. The project is backed by a public-private partnership between seven Utah county governments, Drexel Hamilton Infrastructure Partners and the Rio Grande Pacific railroad company.

Local opposition

Since last year, Neguse and Bennet have lodged their objections with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Agriculture and the White House’s Council and Environmental Quality.

“We are hopeful, as we continue to offer this clarion call against the project’s development, that we will ultimately convince one of these agencies to listen,” said Neguse. “And a big reason why will be because of the local support that we have gotten.”

Colorado House Speaker Julie McCluskie, state Sen. Dylan Roberts and state Rep. Elizabeth Velasquez, all Democrats who represent mountain communities along the central rail route, spoke in opposition to the project at Friday’s press conference.

Eagle County, located just east of Glenwood Canyon, has also joined five environmental groups in suing to block the project.

As officials wrapped up their press conference beside a popular Colorado River boat ramp, Bennet waved through three anglers who launched their boat and pushed off downriver. Given the importance of the river to the Western Slope’s economy and the risks posed by climate change, he maintained that there aren’t any safeguards that would make the risks of the Uinta Basin project acceptable.

“This train has no business bringing this oil from Utah through Colorado, period. Period,” Bennet said. “Anybody who has spent any serious time in this canyon understands what the risks really are — what these mudslides really look like, what these fires really look like.”

Editor’s note: This story first appeared on Colorado Newsline, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

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