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Kayakers paddle the Colorado River through Glenwood Canyon in September 2022 as a freight train passes through the canyon. Ten Colorado communities have joined a legal effort to block trains carrying Uinta Basin waxy crude oil through the canyon. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

Ten Colorado communities along both dormant and active railroad tracks are asking a federal court to include their arguments in an appeal to block plans for increased crude oil train traffic from Utah traversing the state. 

When the Surface Transportation Board in 2020 approved plans for a new 88-mile stretch of railroad in Utah that would connect Uinta Basin oil fields with the national rail network, the federal agency used a “fatally flawed” environmental analysis. That’s the argument raised by the 10 Colorado communities along railroad tracks between Utah and Denver in a plea to join Eagle County and environmental groups appealing the board’s approval of the Uinta Basin Railway in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C.

The flaws in the board’s analysis, the communities argue, are the dismissal of risks of derailment, wildfire, and impacts to tourism and transportation along the rail corridor outside of Utah as simply “downline” effects “beyond the board’s control.” In the “friend of the court” brief filed Friday in the federal court, the communities seek permission to be included in the appeal.

The board’s Final Environmental Impact Statement focused mostly on the impacts of the new railroad in Utah and limited its review of impacts outside of Utah to noise, air quality and road safety. It did not consider the increased threat of derailment for trains with at least 110 cars, each weighing 143 tons, in steep terrain and narrow canyons along the Colorado River. The board also concluded “the downline wildfire impact of the proposed rail line would not be significant,” because the area along the downline segments through Colorado “consists of very, low, low, nonburnable habitat classes.”

“These justifications never even leave the station,” reads the brief, which points to the August 2020 spark in Glenwood Canyon that started the 32,631-acre Grizzly Creek fire. The fire “caused massive economic damage and put lives in danger — ignited from a single source that did not involve highly flammable oil.”

Glenwood Springs Mayor Jonathan Godes called minimizing the wildfire risk along Colorado railroads a “glaring inadequacy … which completely ignores real-world evidence.” 

“If allowed to stand, this increase in oil train traffic would have devastating impacts to Glenwood Springs and other communities along the rail and I-70 corridors,” Godes said in an email to The Sun. “Most alarming is the complete lack of consideration for the extreme fire risk, and potentially catastrophic environmental and economic impacts that would occur if there were a spill.”

Glenwood Springs organized the coalition, which includes Avon, Minturn, Red Cliff and Vail in Eagle County, along with Boulder, Chaffee, Lake, Pitkin and Routt counties. The municipalities and counties are home to more than 423,000 Colorado residents. 

Eagle County in September joined several environmental groups in appealing the Surface Transportation Board’s approval of the Uinta Basin Railway. It’s a last-ditch effort to block the railroad that could route 65,000 to 350,000 barrels of the Uinta Basin’s waxy crude through Colorado every day in trains stretching more than 10,000 feet. In Eagle County those trains will route along the Colorado River through remote canyons.

Eagle County argued the board’s “uninformed decision-making” in its environmental analysis “increased risk of environmental harm” to county residents. 

Eagle County was able to join the appeal because it had filed comments in the board’s Environmental Impact Statement review of the proposed railroad. The 10 communities that filed the brief Friday are asking the court’s permission to join the appeal despite their failure to comment as part of the environmental review. The court this week issued a scheduling order that extended the time for amicus curiae briefs to Friday.

A primary concern in the communities’ brief is derailment and how an accident involving the heated train cars carrying viscous, or “waxy,” crude would increase risk of wildfire and environmental impacts. 

The Surface Transportation Board used national derailment rates from 2018 to 2020 — about 2.7 accidents per million train miles — to downplay the risk of derailment outside Utah. The brief filed Friday argues the national statistics are “a sleight of hand” that obscures the risks of long, heavy trains in “extremely treacherous” terrain that “entail a substantially heightened incident risk compared to national averages.”

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Between 1992 and 1998, the Union Pacific tracks through Colorado saw seven derailments that spilled diesel, taconite and sulfuric acid into rivers adjacent to the tracks that triggered enforcement under the federal Clean Water Act, reads the brief. 

Environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act should help the Surface Transportation Board reduce “the risk of irreversible catastrophe” for communities impacted by the new railroad in Utah, the brief reads.  

“The board opted instead to wash its hands of any such examination in the face of obvious risks,” the 10 communities argue. “Put simply, the board was asleep at the switch.”

Jason Blevins

The Colorado Sun — jason@coloradosun.com Email: jason@coloradosun.com Twitter: @jasonblevins