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Firefighters put water on a train as smoke rises in the background.
Firefighters in the Grand Valley responded to a fire in a train car carrying railroad ties near Palisade on May 2, 2023. (Handout: Palisade Fire Department)

Jessica Washkowiak was in bed Tuesday night when her husband ran in telling her to call 911 because “the train is on fire.”

A train car carrying railroad ties was ablaze, right next to the crops in their Field to Fork organic farm in Palisade.

The couple scooped up their 11-year-old and fled. Firefighters eventually doused the train-car fire, but it took a couple of hours. 

“It was the biggest fire I’ve ever seen, right in front of where we live and work,” said Washkowiak, describing tanker cars on the train near the flaming rail car. “I was definitely thinking about an explosion and East Palestine (Ohio). I mean, if there was a spill here, it could wipe us out. It would completely ruin agriculture in Palisade.”

Earlier Tuesday, a mudslide buried the railroad tracks beneath Red Mountain in West Glenwood, bolstering concerns that a new railroad in Utah could endanger Colorado communities and the Colorado River as it directs billions of gallons of Uinta Basin crude through the state. 

A mudslide on Red Mountain near West Glenwood buried Union Pacific tracks on May 2, 2023. (Handout, City of Glenwood Springs)

The Uinta Basin Railway will connect oil basins in Utah with a national rail network. The new railroad will quintuple production of the waxy crude in the fields in central Utah with an estimated 3,300 new oil wells. The 88 miles of new track will direct 225,000 to 350,000 barrels of crude refineries on the Gulf Coast daily. The route for the Uinta Basin crude will follow the Colorado River through western Colorado and then weave through metro Denver. (The Uinta Basin currently produces about 90,000 barrels a day and the project proposes increasing production to 430,000 barrels a day, with 80,000 barrels heading on trucks to refineries near Salt Lake City each day on trucks.) 

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.

A lawsuit filed by Eagle County and another filed by five environmental groups challenge the Surface Transportation Board’s December 2021 approval of the new railroad. The county and groups’ lawsuits argue that the environmental review of the railroad under the National Environmental Policy Act failed to consider its impact on the Colorado River, endangered fish and downstream communities.

On Wednesday, the day after the railroad fire and mudslide, the conservation groups and Eagle County argued their case before the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C.

The environmental review by the transportation board, according to Eagle County and the environmental groups, “failed to disclose the project’s environmental consequences” from the new oil wells in the basin, pollution from downstream refining of the Uinta Basin crude and climate impacts from burning all that new oil. The county and groups’ lawsuits estimate the combustion of new Uinta Basin crude transported on the new railway will create 53 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for nearly 1% of total emissions in the U.S.

The county and environmental groups also argued the board’s review of the project did not consider landslides on Union Pacific tracks potentially causing derailments and spills impacting communities along the railroad in Colorado, as 35 trains a week, each 2-miles long, roll to Gulf Coast refineries.

In recent months several Colorado federal, state and regional lawmakers have urged federal officials to reconsider approval of the Uinta Basin Railway with a focus on how a derailment in Colorado could send crude oil tankers into the Colorado River. Those same leaders point to the catastrophic derailment of a train carrying toxic chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio as an example of the threat of moving hazardous materials along the Colorado River. 

The Surface Transportation Board argues it does not have jurisdiction to address or enforce mitigation of impacts beyond the 88-mile corridor in Utah. 

One of the judges on the appeals court panel Wednesday asked Eagle County’s attorney Nathan Hunt what Eagle County would want to see in terms of mitigation of impacts down the tracks from the new Uinta Basin Railway.  

Hunt said maybe the railway operator could be required to coordinate with communities like Eagle County to make sure there are policies in place to handle emergency response to wildfires and oil spills. 

Hunt said the analysis of the railway offered more than 150 mitigation measures to offset impacts from the new tracks in Utah “but none pertain to the downline impacts.”

“The board only required mitigation of the proposed railway and in weighing the harms of the project versus the transportation merits, the board repeatedly said these are significant but our mitigation will address that,” Hunt said. “The flaw in that argument is that there is no downline mitigation.”

Wendy Park, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity who argued for the conservation groups on Wednesday, said the processing of Uinta Basin crude at refineries in Texas and Louisiana could hinder progress in places like Houston and Port Arthur, Texas as they struggle to meet national clean air standards. Park said the study also “entirely failed to address the potential for an oil spill” that could harm endangered fish in the Colorado River. 

A 105-car Union Pacific train moving coal eastbound through Glenwood Canyon derailed near the No-Name and Grizzly Creek exits around noon on Feb. 16, 2004. At least five of the cars tipped over, dumping coal down the railroad grade along the Colorado River. (Ed Kosmicki, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Park told the judges that the transportation board’s analysis estimated there would be an oil spill between Utah and Denver about once every four years. Half that route is adjacent to the Colorado River. Her group argues that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should have done more in its review of the transportation board’s Uinta Basin Railway Environmental Impact Study to address potential leaks and oil spills from an additional 14.7 million gallons of crude oil rolling along the river every day. 

“The EIS just does not add up in its reasoning,” Park argued “The EIS is clear these spills will occur and that leaks will occur and that harm should have been considered.”

Barbara Miller, an attorney with the Surface Transportation Board, said the environmental review was “as complete as it could be.”

Since the developers of the railway were uncertain which refineries in Texas or Louisiana would be signing contracts to process the Uinta Basin crude, Miller told the judges that impacts on communities near the refineries was “not reasonably foreseeable” and was not part of the environmental review.

Judge Cornelia T.L. Pillard asked the transportation board’s attorney about the rationale for the project, which will enable the exploitation of the oil resources in the Uinta Basin. The judge said she recognized the desire of tapping the valuable resource from an “isolated empire … with limited capacity to refine.” But the board never outlined a scenario where the Uinta Basin crude would not be burned, the judge said. It was always discussed as a fuel developed by refineries in Texas and Louisiana, Pillard said. 

“But on the other side, you are saying ‘we have no idea what’s going to happen with this,’” Pillard said. “It’s just hard to understand the logic at a really, really basic level of the Surface Transportation Board saying the productivity that will be spurred by this project is something that we are relying on, but the environmental effects of that very productivity is unforeseeable.”

Park said after the hearing that the “judges were very engaged and asked great questions.” She also said it would be “a long wait” until the judges made their ruling.

“They are obviously interested in the case,” Park said. “It really does not add up that the fundamental purpose of this project is to expand oil drilling in the Uinta Basin and (Surface Transportation Board) only said ‘the oil is leaving the basin and here is where it’s going but we are not going to say what will happen when it goes down the Colorado River or what will happen when it gets to refineries.’”

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