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To keep the Uinta Basin Railway project “going forward,” the state of Utah should shell out $750,000 in taxpayer funds so the group behind the project can make its case to the U.S. Congress, or even the U.S. Supreme Court.
That’s according to Keith Heaton, executive director of the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, who presented to an appropriations committee on Wednesday warning that the project needs funding to stay alive amid a legal challenge from western Colorado and environmental groups.
“We think we have a very good case before the Supreme Court, we think we have a good case before the United States (Congress), and worst case scenario is we can always go back and re-do the environmental impact statement,” Heaton told lawmakers during an Infrastructure and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee.
The request was sponsored by Utah Sen. Ron Winterton, R-Roosevelt, a staunch supporter of the project.
The $750,000 requested would help the project stay alive as funding from the Community Impact Board dwindles. The money would go toward “general engineering, planning, and operations of the organization and to address anticipated expenses” related to the ongoing legal challenge.
The coalition, in its request for funding submitted this week, says Utah could receive roughly $150 million in tax revenue annually once the project is completed.
But Deeda Seed, a senior campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups that sued over the project, said lawmakers shouldn’t spend taxpayer money on a project that she believes is doomed.
“This is a failing project that has already been massively subsidized,” Seed said Friday. “To throw another $750,000 at it, and in this instance it’s money from the general fund, seems like a massive misuse of taxpayer dollars to benefit a private industry that shouldn’t be subsidized.”
Seed said the money should go elsewhere — amid a child care crisis, a lack of affordable housing, a drying Great Salt Lake and poor air quality, “the last thing we should be doing is throwing this money down the drain in pursuit of an outcome that isn’t in the public interest,” she said.
The Uinta Basin Railway would transport waxy crude oil from the Uinta Basin, the highest-producing region in the state, to Colorado, extending existing rail lines by 88 miles.
But the project has hit several roadblocks, including a January decision from the U.S. Forest Service to withdraw an important permit and a lawsuit from Colorado’s Eagle County and several environmental groups.
In August, a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit nullified sections of the project’s environmental impact statement, writing that the federal Surface Transportation Board failed to analyze environmental risks, including the threat of wildfire, water pollution and “other biological resources.”
“They prevailed in what I would call a liberal Washington court which has obviously created problems for the project, as well as problems for our country, in that they ruled that we would need to look at undetermined downstream and upstream impacts to the environment,” Heaton said.
Heaton compared it to “Rhode Island telling Utah it can’t expand I-15” because a truck might be carrying something down the interstate that ends up in Utah.
He told lawmakers at the committee meeting the decision “treads all over states rights, interstate commerce” and would put an end to “any energy or interstate transportation project of energy materials because there is no foreseeable way to look at all of the downstream impacts of the materials that you’re transporting.”
Editor’s note: This story first appeared on Utah News Dispatch, which is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Utah News Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor McKenzie Romero for questions: email@example.com. Follow Utah News Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.