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Down the Line: Difference between God and the railroad? ‘God might answer your prayers’

June 28, 2023, 11:34 am

A flare stack burns at a natural gas facility in Garfield County on May 16, 2023. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

DE BEQUE, Colo. — As they head east out of the bottomlands of the Grand Valley, trains on the Union Pacific’s Central Corridor continue to follow the Colorado River in reverse, climbing gradually into Garfield County, where the rocky cliffs and sagebrush-spotted scrubland of the high desert begin to give way to the gentler slopes and lush alpine forests of the Rocky Mountains.

The railroad and Interstate 70 run in parallel through this narrow stretch of the Colorado River Valley for 60 miles, rarely separated by more than 100 yards as they pass industrial lots lined with frac tanks and truck-mounted drill rigs, and narrow strips of Bureau of Land Management acreage where sheep graze beside natural gas compressors and flare stacks.

The communities that the Central Corridor passes through between the Grand Valley and Glenwood Canyon have long been shaped by the boom-and-bust cycles of fossil fuel extraction, their economic fortunes rising and falling along with the viability of the energy sources buried underneath them — first coal, then oil, and now natural gas, extracted from a subterranean formation known as the Piceance Basin.

“We’re an oil and gas county,” Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said in an interview. “We have some of the largest natural gas reserves in the United States, and we do a lot of work to protect those revenues.”

U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, the far-right congresswoman who has made “drill, baby, drill” a signature agenda item alongside her denial of the 2020 election and Christian fundamentalism, calls Garfield County home, having run her gun-themed Shooters Grill restaurant in Rifle for almost a decade before bursting onto the political scene with a shock victory in the 3rd District Republican primary in 2020.

The Piceance gas boom, which peaked a decade ago, swelled county property-tax revenues and provided many families like the Boeberts with high-paying jobs. But a confluence of factors, topped by a global decline in natural gas prices, has gradually soured the basin’s outlook. Corporate oil giants like ExxonMobil and Occidental have largely divested from their holdings here, and Garfield County’s total gas production last year was only slightly more than half of 2013 levels.

It’s a lesson that’s been learned over the decades in the Piceance Basin: to sit atop vast reserves of valuable natural resources often isn’t enough on its own to bring a town or a region prosperity, especially in the wide-open spaces of the West. Whether it’s a lack of infrastructure, technological limitations, the pressures of global commodity markets or simply bad geological luck, obstacles to resource extraction have a way of cropping up.

And it’s a lesson that drillers and county governments in eastern Utah’s Uinta Basin, a hundred miles west, have learned, too.

Although the two basins form a nearly continuous 200-mile-wide belt of underground hydrocarbon reservoirs straddling the Colorado-Utah border, producing oil and gas from many of the same layers of prehistoric rock, the Piceance and the Uinta have little to do with each other on the surface. Travel between them is possible only by circuitous highway routes that skirt north or south around the rugged Roan Plateau.

Soon, though, that could change in a big way. The 88-mile Uinta Basin Railway, proposed by a partnership between industry and Utah county governments, would establish a direct rail connection between the basin and Garfield County for the first time in nearly a century.

The result would be one of the largest sustained efforts to transport crude oil by rail ever undertaken in the U.S., sending hundreds of fully loaded tanker cars daily along the banks of the Colorado River through Garfield County — and many residents here aren’t happy about it.

“Nobody wants it,” Caitlin Carey, a Town Council member in New Castle, said in an interview. “It’s not a sound decision environmentally, it’s not a sound decision as far as safety is concerned in our small towns, and it’s not bringing any revenue to the area. So economically, environmentally and safety-wise, it doesn’t make any sense for it to come through this area.”

The rock that burns

Seven miles past the Garfield County line, eastbound trains on the Central Corridor route roll through Parachute, population 1,390. It’s the county’s smallest incorporated town, paling in comparison even to Battlement Mesa, an unincorporated retirement community on the other side of the Colorado River.

Together, they make a pair of quiet rural villages that have spread out over the ridges of the river valley — but within the lifetimes of many of their residents, officials at the highest levels of corporate America and Colorado state government planned for this to be the center of a new metropolis.

The same geological formations that produce natural gas in Garfield County and waxy crude oil in the Uinta Basin hold a much larger deposit of another hydrocarbon resource: oil shale. When subjected to subterranean heat and pressure over millions of years, the components of oil shale break down to form oil and gas, but it can also be mined and, with some difficulty, processed to produce synthetic fuels. Parts of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming sit atop by far the largest oil shale deposit in the world; the amount of synthetic oil that could be produced from this deposit alone, according to some estimates, is more than double the entirety of the world’s conventional crude oil resources.

Parachute was the epicenter of the most ambitious attempt to unlock the potential of “the rock that burns,” launched by Exxon in 1980, after a decade of sky-high oil prices had spurred a nationwide search for alternative energy sources.

An oil shale mine, left, in Garfield County is pictured in the 1970s. “The rock that burns” can be processed into synthetic fuel, but development of oil-shale resources is cost-effective only when the price of conventional crude oil is very high. (U.S. Department of Energy)

The multibillion-dollar Colony Project envisioned massive oil shale strip mines across Garfield and Rio Blanco counties and synthetic fuel plants that would produce a staggering 15 million barrels per day. Exxon began developing Battlement Mesa to house the project’s workforce as job-seekers flocked to the Western Slope from all around the country. Local governments prepared for more than 200,000 new residents to move into the narrow valley between Parachute and New Castle by 2010; Exxon’s own projections suggested it would be as many as 1.5 million people.

It was the most feverish energy boom in Colorado history, and it wasn’t long before things went bust. Within two years, oil prices began to fall again, and interest in the development of costly new synthetic fuels evaporated. Exxon abruptly pulled the plug on the Colony Project on May 2, 1982, known locally as “Black Sunday.” Thousands lost their jobs overnight, property values plummeted and hundreds of businesses went under in a crash that left its mark on Garfield County for decades.

“It’s a blow for the state and also a blow for the country, which needs alternate energy resources,” then-Gov. Dick Lamm, a cantankerous environmentalist who had nonetheless welcomed Exxon’s investment in Colorado, told The Denver Post shortly after Black Sunday. “This is part of the boom-and-bust cycle the West has been experiencing throughout its history.”

Utah has seen its own share of abortive attempts to mine oil shale, but lately, drilling interests in the Uinta Basin have set their sights on an ambitious effort to overcome a longstanding obstacle to development of the region’s conventional crude oil resources.

Although vast reserves were discovered there in 1948, the high degree of paraffin, or wax, in the Uinta Basin’s crude oil has kept a hard ceiling on its output. Though not as complicated as squeezing synthetic fuels out of oil shale, processing waxy crude comes with a unique set of challenges; because it congeals into a solid at room temperature, conventional pipelines aren’t an option, and it must be heated to be loaded in and out of tanker trucks and rail cars, or blended into thinner crudes in small enough proportions that it won’t cause a blockage.

Members of the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, a Utah public entity comprising governments in and around the Uinta Basin, conduct their monthly public meeting in Orangeville, Utah, on June 8, 2023. (Screenshot via Zoom)

The Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, a public body made up of the Uinta Basin’s local governments, has worked with industry groups for years to study potential solutions, including a costly insulated pipeline that would be able to transport the waxy crude at high temperatures, or a “cracking” process that would partially refine and liquify it within the basin.

“There’s only those two-lane highways. How do you get bulk commodities out? You can’t do it very effectively, you can’t do it very safely,” Keith Heaton, the SCIC’s executive director, said at the group’s monthly meeting in June. “Not to criticize the way it’s been done, but you need transportation.”

In 2019, the SCIC settled on an answer: a new railway that would connect the basin to the national rail network, allowing its waxy crude to be shipped to refineries out of state. The SCIC’s effort, in partnership with private equity firm Drexel Hamilton and the short-line railroad company Rio Grande Pacific, revived a state-led railway plan that was dropped in 2014 over concerns about high costs.

The railway’s proponents point to extensive research showing that railroads are a safer mode of transport for hazardous materials than trucks. Tanker trucks hauling waxy crude out of the Uinta Basin have been involved in repeated accidents and spills since production began to rise in the region a decade ago.

A train of tanker cars travels the tracks along the Colorado River near Cameo on May 16, 2023. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

During a two-year-long environmental review process, the Uinta Basin Railway’s backers told federal regulators that its construction could nearly quintuple the basin’s daily oil production to over 440,000 barrels per day — an output that would put the Uinta Basin on par with northeast Colorado’s Denver-Julesburg Basin, currently the largest oilfield in the Mountain West.

They estimated that 90% of the additional output — potentially over 400 tanker cars full of heated waxy crude per day — would be shipped by train on the Union Pacific’s eastbound route through western and central Colorado, before taking one of several routes out of the Denver metro area to refineries in Texas, Oklahoma or Louisiana.

In December 2021, the federal Surface Transportation Board voted 4-1 to approve the new railway. Conservation groups and Colorado’s Eagle County have sued the STB over the decision, calling the board’s environmental review “fatally flawed,” and state leaders have asked at least four different federal agencies to bring a halt the project. But so far, President Joe Biden’s administration has shown no signs of hitting the brakes.

The railway partnership’s announcement earlier this year that it would seek $2 billion in tax-exempt Private Activity Bonds, which must be approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation, opened a new front in Colorado leaders’ battle to stop the project. The Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups suing to overturn the STB’s approval, estimates that the bonds’ lower financing costs would amount to an $80 million annual federal subsidy to the interests behind the railway.

U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat and former petroleum geologist, has long been an ally of Colorado oil and gas producers, embittering many in his own party who accused him of siding with the industry throughout his time as governor, which overlapped with unprecedented boom times for drillers in the Piceance and Denver-Julesburg basins. Though he’s hardly been an outspoken opponent of the project itself, Hickenlooper in March joined other Colorado Democrats in objecting to the railway’s plans to seek financing through PABs.

“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 demand where they pertain to mature technologies with existing, robust markets,” Hickenlooper and his colleagues wrote in a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “There is no precedent for using PABs to fund a rail project solely to transport crude oil.”

‘A scenic trip to a refinery in Louisiana’

The signs for Rulison, seven miles east of Parachute, direct passersby to a sparse patchwork of small farms and pastures at the foot of the Grand Mesa to the south.

It was at a spot hidden high on one of these hills where, in August 1969, men in hard hats carefully lowered a long, thin canister down a hole drilled a mile and a half deep into the Earth, penetrating a thick underground rock layer that kept a large reserve of natural gas trapped further below.

A few weeks later, crews triggered the device inside the canister: a 40-kiloton nuclear bomb.

The blast from “Project Rulison” toppled chimneys and cracked foundations in Rifle and Parachute, and shook the ground as far away as Golden. It was one of the few instances ever in which the federal government, in partnership with the oil and gas industry, tried fracking with nukes. The method was soon abandoned, because — surprise, surprise — the gas produced as a result of the explosions proved too radioactive to be marketable.

These days, the thing most likely to rattle windows in the Colorado River Valley is freight traffic on the railroad, which passes directly through almost all of Garfield County’s towns — small communities of a few thousand people each, where tracks were laid almost a century and a half ago, along main streets and town squares. In many places, trains pass just yards away from homes and businesses, often at high speeds.

Even when the fracking isn’t being done with nuclear bombs, the fossil fuel economy brings with it benefits and risks — and rarely, if ever, are they evenly distributed. In the case of the Uinta Basin oil trains, many of the risks of increased production would be shouldered by communities in this valley, while almost all of the benefits would accrue to producers, mineral owners and county governments a hundred miles away in Utah.

“This train is not bringing anything to this area,” Carey said. “It’s not taking crude from Garfield County, or Mesa County, or Moffat County. It’s taking Utah crude on a scenic trip to a refinery in Louisiana.”

Gas wells operate near Interstate 70 in Garfield County near Parachute CO, Friday, June 9, 2023. (William Woody)

But the oil and gas industry wields power here, and the jobs and flush bank accounts that the gas boom provided remain an important part of the county’s economy and self-image. And in a country where local politics have become increasingly nationalized, small-town safety concerns aren’t the only thing being debated.

Though Boebert has been an outspoken critic of the Biden administration over the February chemical spill caused by a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, she has remained silent on a proposal that could drastically increase the amount of hazardous materials shipped by rail through the heart of her district. A Boebert spokesperson declined to comment on the record regarding her position on the Uinta Basin Railway.

“We’ve had citizens’ comments and so forth, but we haven’t spent time on it, and I don’t think it’s our business to spend time on it,” Jankovsky said. “It seems like people are making a big deal out of something that’s not such a big deal.”

In March, Garfield’s Board of County Commissioners brushed aside concerns about the oil trains. Commissioner Mike Samson faulted local opponents for “fear-mongering” and railed against what he called the “disaster” of the Biden administration’s energy policy. The response stunned New Castle residents and officials who’d come to the commission with their concerns.

“We have the most residents in close proximity to the rail line,” Carey said.

“The problem isn’t oil and gas altogether,” she added. “The problem is that this is a high-speed train coming through with a payload that is toxic in some situations, and deadly in others. That shouldn’t be something that is politicized.”

Awaiting the ‘iron horse’

Though its gold-rush days are the stuff of legend, it was the silver boom that followed that did more to make Colorado what it is today.

During the 1880s, settlements promising the next silver bonanza sprang up all over the mountains, especially after the Ute people were dispossessed of their lands on the Western Slope. With each new boomtown — Leadville, Aspen, Silverton, Ouray, Creede — Colorado railroad companies raced to be the first to connect them with the outside world. Backed by enterprising local mine owners or Eastern financiers, competing railroads warred over trackage rights and frantically added new branches and spurs to their “mainline” systems, grading out the canyon trails and mountain passes that would become permanent features of the state’s transportation infrastructure.

After completing its narrow-gauge line through Grand Junction to Salt Lake City in 1883, the Denver & Rio Grande Railway Company battled the newly founded Colorado Midland Railway to build the first route into the Roaring Fork Valley’s booming Aspen mining district. While the Midland struggled with a more direct route over the mountains from Leadville, the Denver & Rio Grande turned north, laying the first-ever tracks along the old burro trails of the central Colorado River Valley, then turned south again at Glenwood Springs to follow the course of the Roaring Fork.

When the Denver & Rio Grande reached Aspen three months ahead of its rival, the official celebrations lasted a week. Six hundred rail workers were treated to a giant barbecue, and the first train to arrive, on Nov. 1, 1887, carried Gov. Alva Adams and U.S. Sen. Henry Teller as passengers, among other dignitaries.

Residents of Aspen pose with the first Denver & Rio Grande train to arrive in the silver-mining boomtown in 1887. (Denver Public Library Special Collections, Z-5481)

“Our mines have been practically idle, waiting the coming of the iron horse,” Aspen Mayor Herbert Harding said in a welcoming address. “We are now entering upon an era of prosperity that will be unprecedented in our history.” (In fact, within six years the silver boom would be over for good, brought to an end by the Panic of 1893 and repeal of federal silver-coinage policies.)

But the railroads were more than just highways for heavy industry, and even for towns that weren’t founded on mining, the arrival of the iron horse was a signal event. A month before tracklayers from the Denver & Rio Grande reached Aspen, their arrival in the resort community of Glenwood Springs was greeted with fireworks, a parade and a lavish banquet at the Hotel Glenwood. It was the same a few years later in New Castle, Rifle and other small settlements in the Colorado River Valley, as a subsidiary of the Denver & Rio Grande laid track to connect its Aspen Branch to Grand Junction, completing the right-of-way that trains still travel today between the state line and the east end of Glenwood Canyon.

Even in the golden age of railroading, passenger service was a loss leader for most railroad companies, subsidized by the more lucrative business of hauling freight, said Paul Hammond, director of the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden.

“By the late 19th century, freight traffic is what’s making the money,” Hammond said. “Passenger travel is something that is offered as a public good, and as a marketing awareness tool.”

But especially in parts of western Colorado where road and highway networks were slow to develop, railroads became a vital service connecting towns across rugged terrain, and stayed that way for generations.

In 1914, trains on the Denver & Rio Grande made 16 stops between Grand Junction and Glenwood Springs. From Main Street in New Castle, a passenger could step onto a train and step off a short while later onto the Main Street of every town that still exists in the valley today, and many that don’t: Akin, Morris, Lacy, Ives, Chacra. For most of the first half of the 20th century, there were two local Denver & Rio Grande passenger trains each way daily.

“You could go down (to Glenwood Springs) in the morning and come back in the evening,” an old-timer told journalist Conrad Schrader in 1996. The Denver & Rio Grande’s long-haul California Zephyr began operations in 1949, and continued as the country’s last independent intercity passenger line until 1983.

A California Zephyr passenger train operated by the Denver & Rio Grande railroad is pictured in Mesa County in March 1949. (Denver Public Library Special Collections, Z-6354)

After merging with the Southern Pacific Railroad in the 1980s, the Denver & Rio Grande was acquired by the Union Pacific in 1996. But affection for the “Action Road” lives on at the Colorado Railroad Museum, which houses some of its iconic locomotives and rolling stock, and in a dedicated community of local “railfans” who help keep its history alive.

Carl Smith, a third-generation railroader whose father and grandfather worked on the Denver & Rio Grande, is no railfan — “I like trains on payday,” he said — but he’s seen first-hand the effects of rail industry consolidation in Colorado.

“The local supervisors, managers, officials, they had connections to the community,” said Smith, the Colorado legislative director for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, or SMART. “Now it’s just turned into this large beast, and nobody even knows who the person to call is in case of emergency.”

Boebert country

In Rifle, 15 miles east on the interstate from Parachute, more than 200 businesses went under in the 18 months after Exxon pulled the plug on the Colony Project. By the time the Piceance Basin’s gas boom began to revive the region’s economy in the mid-2000s, the politics of oil and gas had been irrevocably changed.

In 1988, NASA physicist James Hansen testified to Congress that a growing body of evidence corroborated what some scientists had theorized as early as the 19th century: The Earth’s climate was being dangerously warmed by human activity, mostly through the combustion of fossil fuels. By 2007, the fourth in a series of exhaustive scientific reports commissioned by a United Nations panel called the evidence for global warming “unequivocal” and human activity the “very likely” cause.

A generation earlier, it hadn’t been inconceivable for Lamm and others in America’s nascent environmentalist movement to offer qualified support for Exxon’s oil-shale gambit and its promise of a more efficient, more abundant source of energy for the nation. But the planetary scale of the threat posed by climate change, and the urgency of the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, has made a transition away from fossil fuels the top priority for environmental activists around the world.

The Colorado River flows along Interstate 70 near Rifle, CO, Friday, June 9, 2023. (William Woody)

In Colorado, alarm over climate change has grown over the course of a two-decade “megadrought” more severe than any dry spell the Southwest has experienced in at least 1,200 years, putting stress on water supplies and greatly increasing wildfire risk. All of the 20 largest wildfires in Colorado history have occurred since 2001, and the three largest on record burned a combined 540,000 acres during a long, destructive fire season across the state in 2020.

At the same time, oil and gas production exploded in Colorado thanks to advances in drilling technology; statewide crude oil production increased tenfold between 2000 and 2019, while natural gas output more than doubled. Throughout the 2010s, state officials struggled to keep the peace between outraged anti-fracking activists and the industry’s emboldened political allies. Though Gov. Jared Polis expressed hopes for an end to “the oil and gas wars” when he signed a law strengthening health and safety protections in 2019, tensions between activists and drillers remain high.

Few politicians have championed Colorado’s oil and gas industry more aggressively than Boebert, a far-right activist who unseated former U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton with an upset victory in the 3rd District Republican primary in 2020.

Boebert herself once worked for a pipeline company, and her husband, Jayson, from whom she recently filed for divorce, is a 20-year veteran of Garfield County’s natural gas industry. He collected nearly $1 million in consulting fees from gas driller Terra Energy Partners in 2019 and 2020. Boebert’s former restaurant, the gun-themed Shooters Grill, opened in downtown Rifle in 2013, on the same block where so many businesses had closed their doors in Black Sunday’s wake — a symbol of both the town’s economic recovery and its increasingly conservative political bent.

U.S. Representative Lauren Boebert, R-CO3, speaks Saturday evening September 10, 2022, during Club 20 Western Colorado Candidate Debates held at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction CO. Boebert debated her opponent Adam Frisch a Western Slope Democrat. (William Woody)

In Congress, Boebert has been one of the Biden administration’s most outspoken critics on energy policy. The first bill she introduced in the House of Representatives sought to force the country’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change, and she made headlines last year when she attended the State of the Union wearing a shawl emblazoned with the words “Drill Baby Drill.”

“These radicals have no regard for jobs, our economy or responsible energy production and will mount a full-court press to force their socialist agenda down our throats,” she wrote shortly after Biden’s election. That’s an attitude shared by many residents and local officials in oil- and gas-producing regions in Colorado and Utah, even if it’s not always expressed in such confrontational terms.

“Eastern Utah has always relied on the energy sector as the pillar of our economy, and it’s been very good to us,” Heaton, the director of the SCIC, said in June. “(That’s) being taken away. We all know that — and it’s not a market decision, it’s not a decision we’re making. They’re being dictated by government policy at a higher level.”

Boebert has been especially critical of environmental activists’ successful efforts to block the Jordan Cove Energy Project, a proposal to build a 234-mile natural-gas pipeline and export terminal in Coos Bay, Oregon. The project was championed by Piceance Basin gas drillers who sought to open up new markets for their product overseas, but it was denied key permits by Oregon state officials who cited concerns over its climate and water-quality impacts.

Despite her record of opposition to environmental and safety regulations, however, Boebert has joined other Republicans in harshly criticizing the Biden administration over railroad accidents like the February derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials in East Palestine. In April, Boebert wrote that Buttigieg “can’t seem to fix the near-constant train derailments in our country,” and praised former Fox News host Tucker Carlson for covering the incident after “the mainstream media has given up discussing” it.

Along with other right-wing commentators, Carlson spoke of the East Palestine derailment in dark, conspiracist terms, accusing Biden of intentionally neglecting an area in rural Ohio that is “overwhelmingly white and politically conservative.” The Anti-Defamation League also said in the wake of the derailment that white-supremacist groups were “co-opting the tragedy … to advance their claims that the political system is in place to disadvantage and overlook white people.”

U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert of Silt has lodged repeated criticisms of President Joe Biden’s administration over rail safety in the wake of a derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, but has remained silent about a project that could result in a tenfold increase in hazardous materials traveling by rail through the heart of her district.

But even amid her persistent criticism of Biden over East Palestine, and even as other members of Colorado’s congressional delegation have lodged repeated protests with the Biden administration over the Uinta Basin Railway, Boebert has declined to comment publicly on the project to date.

An estimated 550 million gallons of various hazardous materials were shipped by rail through Mesa County, directly to Garfield County’s southwest, in 2021, according to officials there. Based on that figure, the crude oil shipped through Colorado from the Uinta Basin Railway would cause as much as a tenfold increase in the volume of hazardous materials traveling through Boebert’s district.

Local officials in Garfield County say they’ve reached out to Boebert’s office to no avail. Some say the congresswoman’s silence is as much as they can realistically hope for.

“If a position of neutrality, or no position, is the best we’re going to get, I don’t know that that’s a poor outcome,” said Jonathan Godes, a City Council member and former mayor of Glenwood Springs.

‘God and the railroad’

Today, the only time many people in Garfield County think about the railroad is when something goes terribly wrong.

One such day came in November in New Castle, 14 miles east of Rifle, when 47-year-old Lisa Detweiler was struck and killed by a passing freight train near a grade crossing at Kamm Avenue, just south of Main Street. Detweiler was a longtime employee of the Garfield County library system, and her loss was deeply felt in this town of just under 5,000 residents.

“She was my son’s favorite librarian. A lot of the kids had a hard time with it,” said Carey, the New Castle council member. “It was devastating for our town, it was devastating for our library community. It has been an eye-opener.”

Union Pacific referred questions about the incident to the New Castle Police Department. But a spokesperson for that department said the investigation into Detweiler’s death was handled by Union Pacific Police Department, a private law-enforcement agency that “has primary jurisdiction over crimes committed against the railroad,” according to Union Pacific’s website. Union Pacific did not respond to follow-up questions about their investigation.

Even if not a single drop of Uinta Basin oil ever spills in Colorado, such a large increase in freight traffic — as many as five fully loaded eastbound trains per day, with five empty trains returning — worries residents in towns like New Castle, where trains pass at high speeds just a few yards from a playground, an elementary school and the backyards of dozens of homes.

Railroad tracks run through downtown New Castle in Garfield CO, Friday, June 9, 2023. (William Woody)

With support from the Garfield County commissioners, New Castle has petitioned Union Pacific to require lower train speeds through town. But communities here have grown accustomed to making such requests of the Omaha-based corporate giant, only to be ignored or dismissed.

In response to an inquiry about the speed-reduction request, a Union Pacific spokesperson wrote simply, “We abide by the Federal Railroad Administration’s speed limits.”

“What’s the difference between God and the railroad?” Godes asked. “God might answer your prayers.”

As recently as 1980, the Denver & Rio Grande was one of 40 so-called Class I railroads operating in the U.S., but a wave of deregulation and consolidation has reduced that number to just seven. Just two companies, Union Pacific and BNSF, control virtually all major freight routes west of the Mississippi River, and many towns along those routes say community relations have deteriorated as railroads face investor pressure to cut costs and maximize profits.

“When we have some kind of project, whether it be a stormwater project or something that possibly could impact their operations, it is incredibly time-consuming and difficult to even get somebody to respond to you,” Godes said.

“They are so insular, because of the legal protections that we have granted them over the centuries, that they just don’t have to care about anything,” he added. “And so they don’t.”

Amtrak, which took over the operation of the California Zephyr passenger line in 1983, still serves Glenwood Springs’ historic train station once each way daily — its only stop between Grand Junction and Granby. Beginning in 2021, the Rocky Mountaineer, a Vancouver-based luxury passenger line operating a scenic three-day rail trip between Denver and Moab, also makes several stops in Glenwood Springs each week.

But for most towns in the Colorado River Valley, the railroad tracks that once did so much to connect communities to each other, and to the outside world, are now little more than a nuisance at best, and a deadly hazard at worst.

“They’re not stopping in New Castle. We don’t have a depot anymore. Silt doesn’t have one, Rifle doesn’t have one,” said Carey. “If (the railroad) was moving people, if it was creating opportunity for transit in the area, that would be a really different conversation.”

Left: The train station in New Castle is pictured in 1906. Right: A tank car sits on the tracks near downtown New Castle on May 16, 2023. (Denver Public Library Special Collections, X-12501, Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

State Sen. Perry Will, a New Castle Republican, is among the only GOP elected officials at the state level to voice opposition to the Uinta Basin Railway, joining other Western Slope lawmakers in writing to federal officials in March to express their “grave” concerns. Will did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

“We strongly urge you and your partners in the federal government to conduct a more thorough risk analysis in light of recent events and our pressing concerns regarding water supply and wildfire,” the lawmakers wrote to Buttigieg and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “While we understand and support the desire to increase domestic energy supply, the potential negative impacts of this project far outweigh any economic benefit.”

New Castle, like so many other Western Slope communities, started as a boomtown. The soft bituminous coal mined from the mountainsides nearby was prized as a fuel for silver smelters — and steam locomotives.

But it’s a town that knows better than most the long-term risks of such frenzied heavy-industrial activity. A series of fires and explosions rocked New Castle’s coal mining industry in the 1890s, and more than a dozen underground fires in the area have been smoldering for over a century now. Investigators said that one such blaze caused the 2002 Coal Seam Fire that destroyed 30 homes in New Castle, and flare-ups from others still occasionally send columns of smoke into the skies overhead.

Bronwyn Rittner, a New Castle resident who lives just across from where the Union Pacific tracks run along Main Street, spoke of the Uinta Basin Railway’s risks at a Town Council meeting in May.

“We won’t see any funds, our community won’t benefit at all. It’s not like the oil and gas industry we have,” Rittner said. “It’s very literally a case of action that benefits the few, with steep costs for the many.”

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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