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Down the Line: Colorado River headwaters ground zero for inevitable train derailments, oil spills in local streams

June 30, 2023, 10:12 am

An aerial view of the aftermath of the train derailment and chemical fire in East Palestine, Ohio, in February 2023. (National Transportation Safety Board)

At 88 miles long, with a projected capacity of up to 350,000 barrels per day, eastern Utah’s Uinta Basin Railway would rank among the most ambitious efforts to haul crude oil by rail ever undertaken in the United States.

But it’s not the largest ever considered.

That label belongs to a proposed 580-mile, dual-track railroad to the northern coast of Alaska studied by the U.S. Department of Transportation in the early 1970s. The route would have hauled as much as 2 million barrels per day from the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay, but in the end it was ditched in favor of what was deemed a safer and more efficient method of transport: the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which instead pumped the oil 800 miles to the port of Valdez, where it could be loaded into tanker ships.

It was a solution that came with its own set of risks, and in the years leading up to the pipeline’s completion, the federal government and the consortium of oil companies that built it made a series of assurances about the safeguards that would be in place. Experienced harbor pilots would guide vessels through the length of Prince William Sound. An upgraded navigation system would further reduce the chances of a ship veering off course. Tankers would be double-hulled to lower the risks of spills, and robust contingency plans would spell out effective containment measures in the event that disaster did strike.

In short, facing widespread environmental concerns, the backers of the project promised that everything would be fine. For nearly 12 years, it was.

Gradually, however, many of the promised safety measures went unfulfilled, ebbed away or fell victim to cost-cutting. Pilotage requirements were eased at oil companies’ request. The region’s navigation system was downgraded to save money. The Coast Guard dropped its double-hull mandate in the face of industry opposition, and contingency plans were drawn up based on unrealistic assumptions.

As the risks mounted, and minor incidents and near-misses added up, environmental advocates issued increasingly urgent warnings about the tanker traffic in Prince William Sound. Long before a tanker named the Exxon Valdez left the port late on March 23, 1989, locals knew “the Big One” was coming. On the very night that the tanker departed, in fact, marine biologist Riki Ott spoke at a public meeting of concerned Valdez residents to warn officials of the potential consequences.

“When, not if, ‘the Big One’ does occur, and much or all of the income from a fishing season is lost, compensation for processors, support industries and local communities will be difficult if not impossible to obtain,” Ott said in remarks made just hours before the Exxon Valdez ran aground in the early-morning darkness on March 24.

Of the dozens of Colorado communities lying along the “downline” route of the Uinta Basin Railway’s oil trains, fears of a potential “Big One” may be highest in Grand County, where the Colorado River and several of its fragile tributaries flow through the high alpine meadows of Middle Park. Just like Ott and other concerned Alaskans in the 1980s, residents here speak about what happens when, not if, a train derails. They’ve grown especially apprehensive following a derailment and chemical spill involving a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, Ohio, in February.

“The chances of derailment in Colorado along these windy canyons goes way up,” said Kirk Klancke, president of the Colorado River Headwaters Chapter of conservation group Trout Unlimited. “East Palestine, Ohio, didn’t give us any confidence, either.”

An oil spill here, not far from where the Colorado River’s headwaters flow from the western side of the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park, could immediately threaten water supplies in towns that rely on it as their one and only source. Farther along, where the railroad finally parts ways with the Colorado and turns south to follow the Fraser River’s course instead, a spill could pollute water on both sides of the divide, since much of the Fraser’s water is diverted through several tunnels under the mountains to thirsty cities on the populous Front Range.

“Damaging the environment for a long period of time — I think that would have an impact all the way down, since we’re the headwaters,” Klancke said. “Especially considering how hard it is to clean this up.”

In East Palestine and other towns nearby, residents are bracing themselves for regulatory and court proceedings that could take years to unfold, amid lingering uncertainty about exposure levels and the long-term health risks posed by hazards like the toxic vinyl chloride that was burned in the aftermath of the derailment.

Hilary Flint, a resident of nearby Enon Valley, Pennsylvania, said she and many others have experienced health symptoms like rashes, burning eyes and respiratory issues in the months following the accident. A cancer survivor, Flint said she plans to move out of her fourth-generation family home and relocate out of state after testing showed elevated levels of vinyl chloride and ethylhexyl acrylate, another hazardous chemical that was spilled as a result of the crash.

Along with other members of a group called the Unity Council for the East Palestine Train Derailment Community, Flint is organizing residents to make demands of Norfolk Southern and advocate for regulations to limit the risk of similar incidents occurring in the future.

“For the people that are in a town with train tracks going right through, now is the time to check and see: What training is your fire department doing?” she said. “What type of emergency response plan exists?”

“What happened in East Palestine can happen anywhere,” Flint added. “If we’re not holding these large companies accountable, this is going to keep happening in small communities, and everyone needs to be prepared for what that could look like.”

Magnified risks

After completing the last of the sharp curves that snake through Byers Canyon, eastbound trains on the Union Pacific railroad emerge directly into the town of Hot Sulphur Springs, passing between the Colorado River and the resort that has drawn visitors here for more than 150 years.

Soon, as many as five fully loaded, two-mile long crude oil trains per day could pass just a hundred feet from the naturally heated pools of mineral spring water at the Hot Sulphur Springs Resort and Spa. As they pass through town, trains block the only entrance to the resort, a dirt road that intersects with the tracks at a so-called grade crossing — one of many such crossings across rural Colorado that lack the gate arms and warning lights that are required in more highly-trafficked areas.

“There are locations all over the state that don’t have the emergency arms over the railroad tracks,” Craig Hurst, manager of the Colorado Department of Transportation’s Freight Mobility and Safety Branch, said in an interview.

“You still see far too many rail and truck events, where the truck is centered on a rail line, and a locomotive, obviously, couldn’t stop that quickly,” Hurst said. “You can’t see very far in some of these locations — you can do everything right and still be in a bad spot.”

Though they’re one of the most common causes of train accidents, collisions with cars and trucks at grade crossings are just one of many reasons trains in Colorado derail. More than 480 accidents on “mainline” rail segments across the state have been reported to the Federal Railroad Administration since 2000, with causes ranging from broken or worn-out tracks and defective equipment to rockslides, heavy snowfall and other “extreme environmental conditions,” including floods and high winds.

Train tracks along the Colorado River through Byers Canyon southwest of Hot Sulphur Springs are pictured on June 11, 2023. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

Though railroads are tight-lipped about the freight that travels on their rails, estimates from federal regulators and summary data released by local officials suggest the Uinta Basin Railway could more than quadruple the amount of freight rail traffic through central Colorado, and dramatically increase the percentage of that traffic that is made up of hazardous materials.

“When you are significantly increasing rail traffic in one area, then whatever risks there may be — and there are always risks — those simply are magnified,” Eagle County Commissioner Matt Scherr said in an interview. Eagle County has joined five environmental groups in suing to overturn the railway’s approval.

In its environmental review of the project, the federal Surface Transportation Board analyzed “downline” impacts like the increased risk of train accidents in Colorado, including a spill of up to 30,000 gallons of crude oil roughly once every five years.

But the STB’s analysis stopped there. It didn’t examine in detail the risks that such a spill could pose to communities and ecosystems in the downline area — an omission that Eagle County’s lawsuit called “arbitrary and capricious.”

With the STB’s approval and the granting by the U.S. Forest Service of a 12-mile right-of-way permit through a protected area in Utah’s Ashley National Forest, President Joe Biden’s administration is poised to greenlight the Uinta Basin Railway over objections from Colorado officials. The project still needs to secure billions of dollars in financing before construction can begin; backers have announced plans to seek tax-exempt Private Activity Bonds that must be approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation, drawing further protests from the railway’s opponents.

From left, Glenwood Springs Mayor Jonathan Godes, state Sen. Dylan Roberts, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse speak at a press conference in Glenwood Canyon to voice opposition to the Uinta Basin Railway project on April 7, 2023. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

Even without the increased oil-train traffic, Middle Park is a region where water supplies are under threat.

In Hot Sulphur Springs, where 100% of the town’s water comes from the Colorado River, residents this spring were under the latest in a series of water conservation orders that the Public Works Department has implemented since the 2020 East Troublesome Fire. Spring runoff flowing over ash and silt in the fire’s burn scar has increased the turbidity of the water that Hot Sulphur Springs draws from the river, slowing down the rate at which it can treat drinking water.

Like most crude oils, the waxy crude produced in the Uinta Basin is a toxic cocktail of hydrocarbons and other chemicals, from heavy metals to volatile organic compounds like benzene.

When 60,000 gallons of oil were spilled into Canada’s North Saskatchewan River by a leaky pipeline in 2016, three cities that drew drinking water from the river were forced to shut down their intakes for nearly two months while authorities evaluated health risks and treatment options. A temporary 18-mile pipeline was laid to provide potable water to residents in the meantime. Similar precautions were being taken this week by communities who rely on the Yellowstone River in Montana, where a bridge collapse caused a hazmat spill from a train operated by Montana Rail Link.

The cost to clean up the Saskatchewan spill — a release of about two tanker cars’ worth of oil — totaled at least $107 million.

“If you lose your water supply,” Klancke said, “it’s going to cost these towns a lot of money to get it back.

'An absolute disaster'

Heading east into Granby, trains on the Union Pacific’s Central Corridor travel along the southern edge of the Windy Gap Reservoir, a potent symbol of Grand County’s vulnerable water supplies and the risks that its rivers face in a hotter, drier climate.

Disasters like the East Troublesome Fire — an unprecedented fast-moving blaze that scorched more than 150,000 acres in the headwaters region over a two-day period in late October — have laid bare the stakes of climate change. But even before the worsening risks of drought and aridification are taken into account, Grand County’s rivers and streams rank as some of the most endangered waterways in the country.

“We only have 40% of our native flows, because 60% gets diverted to Front Range cities,” Klancke said. For years, his Trout Unlimited chapter has lobbied for projects to restore the health of riparian ecosystems in the region, like a $27 million diversion channel that will allow fish to bypass the Windy Gap dam.

Located at the confluence of the Colorado and Fraser rivers, the Windy Gap Reservoir collects tens of thousands of acre-feet of water per year, which is pumped six miles north to Lake Granby and then under the Continental Divide to the watershed of the Big Thompson River. It’s part of an extensive system of reservoirs and conduits that make up the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, which supplies drinking and irrigation water to 1 million people in 33 Front Range municipalities.

It’s only one of several “transbasin” diversion projects that impact watersheds in Grand County. And the reduced flows that result from the diversions are a big reason why residents and county officials are especially worried about the consequences of an oil spill here.

“They say the solution to pollution is dilution — if you’re able to get more water to come through, eventually it will clean out,” said Rich Cimino, a Grand County commissioner. “But our rivers are shrunk. We’re spending millions of dollars over decades to narrow and deepen and shade our streams. A lot of repair work has to happen so that these streams can be healthy again, with less water.”

“If there was some kind of a spill, these little streams would just be obliterated,” Cimino added. “It would be an absolute disaster, even worse than if we didn’t have the water diversions.”

Residents here accept the inevitability of the transbasin diversions; 80% of Colorado’s precipitation falls on the western side of the Continental Divide, but 90% of its population lives on the eastern side. But the arrangement means that much of the responsibility for mitigating risks to Front Range water supplies falls on a county with only a fraction of the Interstate 25 corridor’s population and financial resources.

Granby, two miles east of the Windy Gap dam, is the largest of Grand County’s municipalities, with a whopping 2,079 residents.

“Small counties like us — we ourselves aren’t capable of cleaning up (an oil spill),” said Klancke. “Yet we’re going to be the first responders.”

Evacuees leave Granby as the East Troublesome Fire burns in the distance, Oct. 22, 2020. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

Grand County is hardly a hotbed of tree-hugging, anti-fossil-fuel sentiment. It’s a world away from the liberal jet-set enclaves of Vail and Aspen, and all three members of its Board of County Commissioners are Republicans.

But after hearing from concerned residents and groups like Trout Unlimited, commissioners wrote in a February letter to Colorado Gov. Jared Polis that the county would be “formally opposing” the Uinta Basin Railway unless a series of safeguards were put in place. The requested contingency measures included an emergency response plan approved by state wildlife officials and the hiring of an experienced cleanup contractor on retainer.

“Grand County is very concerned with the capacity and response times of the specialized emergency services capable of containing a crude oil spill,” commissioners wrote. “Should a spill occur in Grand County, it will have reverberating impacts across the entire state of Colorado.”

Anne Junod, a researcher with the Urban Institute who has studied the risks and community perceptions of oil trains, said in an interview that her research shows a unique set of concerns on the part of residents who live along rail corridors outside of major metropolitan areas.

“What you see is, the emergency and first responders tend to be a lot more volunteer-based — they just have fewer resources, less emergency responder capacity, smaller tax bases to invest in those types of things than your larger metros,” she said.

In recent decades, most major train disasters have occurred in rural areas like East Palestine, where, compared to densely-populated cities, there are far more miles of track and fewer people and resources to properly inspect and maintain them.

“It really is just a numbers game — there’s over 140,000 miles of track in the U.S., and well over 100,000 of those are going through rural and tribal areas,” Junod said.

“You have these larger inspection regions, where for the most part it’s impossible to adequately spend the time you need to make sure that tracks and infrastructure are adequate quality,” she added. “What we’ve been seeing over the last 15 to 20 years — a lot of the catastrophic derailments we’ve seen, (National Transportation Safety Board) findings have shown that oftentimes, it’s due to inspection issues that just weren’t caught.”

So far, Grand County hasn’t received any of the assurances it asked for. Though its opposition to the railway came too late for it to join other Colorado city and county governments in supporting Eagle County’s lawsuit in an amicus brief earlier this year, Cimino, for his part, wishes the county had understood the risks sooner.

“I’m confident we would have (joined), if we had known everything at the right time,” he said. “Just up and down, it’s only negatives to us, no positives to us.”

Long-term fallout

In the winter, trains bound for Denver climb a tree-lined ridge a few miles south of the town of Fraser, then emerge into a clearing where they can find themselves in a race with skiers just a hundred feet to their right, making their way down a beginner’s slope that runs in parallel with the railroad to the base of the Winter Park Resort.

It’s the only ski resort in America served directly by passenger rail — not an insignificant selling point, at a time of widespread angst about wintertime traffic congestion on the Interstate 70 corridor. Like so many other parts of Colorado’s railroading legacy, the “Ski Train” was pioneered by the Denver & Rio Grande Railway in 1940, Winter Park’s first year in operation, and although the service has lapsed several times since then, Amtrak has run its weekend Winter Park Express line during the ski season since 2017.

Grand County’s population can double during the busiest periods of the winter and summer tourist seasons, leaving it heavily dependent on the economic activity generated by skiing, rafting, fishing and other outdoor activities.

The Winter Park Resort is the only ski area in the U.S. directly served by passenger rail. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

Colorado has over 9,000 miles of fishable trout streams, but only 325 of them are deemed “Gold Medal” waters, a certification from Colorado Parks and Wildlife that a river segment can consistently produce quality stock. Forty of those miles lie within Grand County. Advocates like Klancke are proud of the hard-won designation for such a vulnerable area — and fearful that all of that progress could be suddenly undone by an oil spill.

“It means a lot of dollars on a state level. For us, it’s in the tens of millions, just in our small community,” Klancke said. “It’s a huge part of our economy, so that would be the main loss from a financial point.”

Such concerns are why, in addition to contingency plans and response equipment, Grand County asked for funds to be placed in an escrow account to cover the costs of a potential oil spill caused by a Uinta Basin train. The county’s request didn’t specify an amount, but noted that the cleanup of a 2010 oil spill in the Kalamazoo River ran to $1.2 billion.

“A bond in place to guarantee payment for loss, rather than years of being in court — in a small county, these are the ways we have to think,” Klancke said. “We don’t have the money to incur the loss of funds for a long period of time.”

It’s a lesson that opponents of the Uinta Basin Railway are drawing from countless oil spills and other disasters over the decades, from the Exxon Valdez to East Palestine. Often, the immediate ecological damage and emergency response only represent the start of a disaster that can take years to fully unfold.

In Grand County and elsewhere, the deepest fears about the railway concern the unknown — the uncertain future that would await communities along the Colorado River in the event of a catastrophe that, in the words of 10 local governments in their March legal brief supporting Eagle County’s lawsuit, “could ruin this unique region for decades.”

Anglers fish on the Colorado River near an idle Union Pacific freight train in western Grand County on June 12, 2023. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

For coastal communities in Alaska, some of the most devastating effects of the Exxon Valdez spill were those that accumulated gradually in the years afterwards, as the long-term harm to fisheries became clear, a court battle over damages dragged on for almost two decades, and individuals and families suffered from what psychologists call collective or disaster trauma.

Nearly five months after the East Palestine derailment, residents are steeling themselves for what could prove to be a similar experience in the months and years ahead. As is often the case, divisions within the community are forming as environmental mitigation, legal proceedings and public-relations efforts by Norfolk Southern get underway.

“A lot of the communities are split — half of the people are sick, they’re pissed off, they’re trying to fight,” Flint said. “The other half are really just kind of acting like nothing’s wrong. They’re like, ‘Well, the EPA has told us everything’s fine. Norfolk Southern is giving us a $25 million park now. That’s great.’”

Community members have asked Ohio state officials and Norfolk Southern to fund independent environmental monitoring and health testing for impacted residents, as well as to cover temporary relocation and cleanup costs for those who may be at risk of continued exposure.

“We’re almost at five months, and there are people that have never gotten to leave their home, and never had their homes professionally cleaned, that have just been exposed continually, and that’s unacceptable,” Flint said. “There’s so much incomplete information going around that it’s made it very difficult for people to understand what we’re really dealing with.”

Junod noted widespread concerns about railroad liability insurance following a 2013 explosion caused by an oil-train derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Canada. Insurers at the time offered liability coverage of up to $1.5 billion for the largest rail operators; Norfolk Southern has said it’s insured for losses of up to $1.1 billion in the wake of the East Palestine accident. But even in rural areas, damages can far exceed those amounts.

“East Palestine is the most recent, it is not unique. Most of these are happening in towns about that size or even smaller,” Junod said. “We have a market failure that cannot cover, I’m not even going to say a worst-case scenario, (just) a bad-case scenario. It just will not address the magnitude of the potential impact — economic loss, and then, of course, human loss.”

The 'short line to Zion'

Eastbound trains approach the curve at the base of Winter Park slowly. Past the bunny slopes and the resort’s bare-bones Amtrak stop, they cross a short bridge over the Fraser River and an access road.

Then they disappear into darkness.

Railroad tycoon David Moffat didn’t live to see the completion — or even the beginning — of the 6.2-mile tunnel under the Continental Divide that bears his name. He died nearly penniless in New York in 1911, having exhausted his fortune trying and failing to end a half-century of frustration by building a direct transcontinental route over the Rocky Mountains west of Denver.

Incorporated in 1902, the Denver, Northwestern & Pacific Railway, better known as the “Moffat Road,” was the final attempt to realize what had become a lifelong fixation for Moffat, who had previously surveyed potential routes across the Divide as president of the Denver & Rio Grande in the 1880s.

The Moffat Road achieved a partial victory in 1904, when it built what was to be a temporary line across Rollins Pass, at an elevation of nearly 12,000 feet. But tracks were subsequently laid only as far as the Yampa River Valley, never reaching Salt Lake City to complete the “short line to Zion” that Moffat had promised, and the high costs of building and maintaining the railroad in the near-constant blizzard conditions atop the mountains bankrupted the company before work on a long-planned tunnel could begin.

It took more than a decade of effort following Moffat’s death, and a large public subsidy raised by a new tax district, for crews to finally start digging. The Moffat Tunnel’s construction was among the largest and most dangerous infrastructure projects in Colorado history, costing an estimated $410 million in 2022 dollars and resulting in the deaths of 28 workers. Today, the tunnel is still owned by the state, and rented out to Union Pacific on a 99-year lease that expires in 2025.

Alongside the main tunnel, a service shaft used by workers during construction today serves a different purpose: transporting up to 100,000 acre-feet of water annually from the Colorado River Basin to the Front Range to be used by the Denver Water system.

On the Western Slope, it takes eastbound trains more than 150 miles to gradually climb from 5,200 feet in elevation near Rifle to the west entrance of the Moffat Tunnel at 9,200 feet. But after exiting the tunnel on the other side of the Divide, trains reverse that gain in a 4,000-foot descent that takes fewer than 50 miles as they charge down the steep eastern face of the Front Range into Denver.

The East Portal of the Moffat Tunnel near Tolland is pictured on June 26, 2023. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

Much of that descent comes in the narrow gorges of the South Boulder Creek watershed, alongside flows that in large part are diverted into the creek by the Moffat service tunnel.

“Gross Reservoir is mostly Fraser River water, with some South Boulder Creek water,” Klancke said. “So a spill there — Denver could lose a large percentage of their water supply to the north end.”

Denver Water, which serves more than 1.5 million people in the city and surrounding suburbs, oversees a large system with three water treatment plants and reservoirs in multiple watersheds, giving it “some flexibility to pull water from different sources” in the event of a major spill, a spokesperson wrote in an email. But Jim Lochhead, the utility’s CEO, wrote to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg earlier this year about mitigating the risks posed by the Uinta Basin Railway.

“We joined nearby counties, organizations, elected officials and coalitions to request that more be done to protect Colorado’s water if the project is approved, including analysis of rail safety practices, an assessment of the health of railroad infrastructure through this corridor, and assistance to local authorities in preparing for — and responding to — a spill, including response plans for each county,” said Denver Water’s Jimmy Luthye.

Klancke and others in Trout Unlimited’s Headwaters chapter like to say they’re “not a fishing club,” but an environmental organization “with members who like to fish.” In such a fragile environment, near the very source of a river that so many people across Colorado and the West depend on, that attitude is born out of necessity. From Grand County, it’s not possible to travel any further upstream; damage done here, whether by a catastrophic oil spill or the mounting drought and wildfire risks posed by climate change, could very well be permanent.

“Our chapter, we live at ground zero,” Klancke said. “And we feel if we can’t save these rivers, then all the rest of the rivers in Colorado on the Western Slope are lost, too.”

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series that 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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