Colorado’s U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Joe Neguse are asking the Forest Service to delay final approval of a plan to route the proposed Uinta Basin Railway through a section of roadless area in the Ashley National Forest in northeastern Utah.
The Colorado Democrats on Monday sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, urging him to not issue the final permit for the railway. With their letter, Bennet and Neguse join a last-ditch effort to stop the Uinta Basin Railway. Environmental groups and many Colorado communities along the route are vying to block the 88-mile Utah railroad, which will route as many as five mile-long trains of waxy, viscous crude oil every day through Colorado along the Colorado and Fraser rivers.
Saying the recent train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, “has laid bare the threat of moving hazardous materials by rail,” Bennet and Neguse are asking the Forest Service to complete “a robust supplemental review” of the rail plan.
The two politicians said a derailment of waxy crude in the headwaters of the Colorado River would be “catastrophic” to wildlife, water supplies and recreation and impact that entire Colorado River Basin, which provides water for 40 million people in seven Western states. They also pointed to the risk of wildfire from a train derailment in Colorado communities along the proposed route who have grappled with fires, floods and mudslides.
“It is beyond reckless to expose these sensitive areas of our state to these additional risks,” Bennet and Neguse wrote, noting that the Uinta Basin Railway will also “quadruple the number of rail cars carrying hazardous materials” through metro Denver.
The Forest Service in July 2022 approved a special use permit allowing the Uinta Basin Railway to build tracks through about 12 miles of the Ashley National Forest, including a roadless area. The Surface Transportation Board in December 2021 approved the 88-mile railroad, which will connect the oil fields of the Uinta Basin to the national rail network and refineries on the Gulf Coast. The railway will allow increased production of the basin’s paraffin-heavy crude, which has been limited for years by shipping in trucks.
Environmental groups sued the Forest Service to overturn the approval for the new railroad but the agency upheld its decision. Those same environmental groups — along with Eagle County — have filed lawsuits in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., seeking to overturn the federal transportation board’s approval of the railway.
In July 2022 Bennet and Neguse sent a letter Brenda Mallory, the head of the Biden Administration’s Council on Environmental Quality, asking for a more thorough review of the transportation board’s approval. The politicians said they were unsure the risk analysis in the review “has been commensurate with the potential dangers this projects entails to Colorado communities and watersheds.”
Opponents of the railway plan also are preparing to ask the Department of Transportation to not allow the owner of the Uinta Basin Railway to secure $2 billion in low-interest private activity bonds for the project.
“Although we agree it is vital to secure our domestic energy supply, we do not accept that it requires imperiling the Colorado River or the local communities that live along it,” Bennet and Neguse wrote to the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture on Monday.