Grand County Commissioners formally oppose Uinta Basin Railway unless conditions are met

Trains carrying waxy crude oil will travel along Fraser and Colorado Rivers, posing an environmental risk in the event of a derailment

A project to move waxy crude oil from Utah to Gulf Coast refineries is moving forward; the oil will travel through Grand County via the Union Pacific railroad. Trout Unlimited and Grand County commissioners have expressed concerns over possible derailment over the Colorado and Fraser Rivers.
Jason Blevins/The Colorado Sun

A controversial project to increase waxy crude oil production in Utah and transport it via railroad is on its way to becoming a reality. The Surface Transportation Board, the federal agency in charge of overseeing new rail projects, has approved the project. But some groups believe it has hazardous implications for the environment, including in Grand County.

“Picture 10 2-mile long trains with heated railcars filled with this waxy crude which hardens to the consistency of candle wax when exposed to air, traveling along two of the most threatened rivers in the country, the Colorado and the Fraser,” said board member Mark Eddy of the Colorado River Headwaters chapter of Trout Unlimited. “Picture what those canyons and rivers would look like if even one of the tanker cars split open and spilled its contents into Byers Canyon right down the road there. The devastation to the river ecosystem would be catastrophic.”

Eddy was speaking to Grand County commissioners during their Jan. 17 meeting. He has encouraged the board to join the local chapter of Trout Unlimited in the fight against the new rail project in order to protect Grand’s ecosystem. Trout Unlimited, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting cold-water fisheries, was also represented by President Kirk Klancke and board member Rich Newton at the commissioners meeting.

Opposition and lawsuits

The waxy crude oil will be transported from Utah oil fields, go through national forest land, connect with the Union Pacific rail line to Denver, and go down to Oklahoma and Gulf Coast refineries. During its journey, up to 350,000 barrels of waxy crude will be transported each day on the rail line, passing from Kremmling to Winter Park and through the Gore and Byers canyons, following the Colorado and Fraser rivers. 

Because of the railway’s vast reach, Trout Unlimited isn’t alone in its opposition. More than 70 counties, municipalities and sanitations districts, as well as dozens of environmental groups, have expressed concerns. The project has faced lawsuits, including one from Eagle County in Colorado, for not adequately addressing environmental risks from derailments and spills in forests and rivers, as well as damage to air quality from increased oil production.

“(Eagle County) doesn’t believe the federal government has sufficiently studied the unique impacts the project will have in Colorado,” Eddy said.

He added that five Colorado towns and five counties are supporting Eagle’s lawsuit.

“Concerns are across the map; (Trout Unlimited is) concentrating more on what would happen with the rivers,” he explained. “The environmental impacts on the rivers we depend on for water, agriculture, tourism and recreation would last for many years.”

Impacts on Grand County’s ecosystems

Eddy explained that cleaning up waxy crude is arduous and costly, both on land and in water. Once exposed to air, the waxy crude forms into solid globules that stick to a surface or remain in the water.

Newton added that if the waxy crude spilled into the Fraser River Canyon, “we’ve got about an hour before it gets to the Granby water intake.”

From the Fraser River Canyon, the water then flows to the wells of Granby residents — all water for the town of Granby would be cut off in the event of a spill.

“The same is true for just about every town along the Fraser River,” Newton said.

He explained that there are also risks to farmers and ranchers, for whom water is their most essential asset. Containments from the spill could potentially travel to systems used for watering livestock or crop irrigation.

“If it gets on a hay meadow, it doesn’t evaporate like regular crude would, it’ll just sit there,” he said.

Eddy added that statistics on train derailments from the project’s Environmental Impact Statement predict that there will be an accident every year along the entire railway on average, and a quarter of those accidents will involve spills due to the increased train traffic.

“When you think about all the canyons and the tunnel that (the train) has to go through, this particular county is a dangerous area for these trains,” Eddy said.

Eddy added that another threat from derailment is wildfire, as trains travel through Grand County forests and other areas stricken by drought. Since the oil hardens at room temperature, it is transported in railcars heated to 110 degrees, which could pose a fire danger. It is also a Category 3 flammable liquid.

He cited a 2016 accident where a train carrying crude oil through Oregon derailed in the Columbia River Gorge and caught fire.

So why is such a controversial project moving forward so quickly?

A boon for Utah’s economy

Currently, the Uinta Basin contains copious amounts of waxy crude oil, which can be refined for gasoline, diesel fuel and lubricants. Since only a limited amount of oil can be transported via tanker truck, most of it ends up in nearby refineries in Salt Lake City. By connecting the basin to the national Union Pacific rail, oil companies can potentially quadruple production and tap into Gulf Coast refineries.

The Uinta Basin Railway is sponsored by the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, which states the project increases revenues for Utah’s government, economy and schools, increases highway safety by reducing dangerous oil tanker trucks, and creates jobs. The U.S. Forest Service has approved the line to travel through its forest land, Utah’s state officials have lauded the project for diversifying the economy, and the Ute Indian Tribe, which receives revenue from the oil production, also backs the railway.

Utah’s oil producers have discussed the potential of the Uinta Basin Railway for about a century, and have deemed the current route as the most effective. A construction timeline to reach Union Pacific’s current line, using public funds, is still in the air. The railroad will be owned by Drexel Hamilton Infrastructure Partners and operated by Rio Grande Pacific.

While the project has its proponents, Grand County commissioners have stood with Trout Unlimited.

In March 2022, then-commissioners Kris Manguso, Rich Cimino and Merrit Linke sent a letter to Sen. Michael Bennet, Sen. John Hickenlooper and Rep. Joe Neguse. The letter expressed concerns over derailment, especially in Grand County’s steep canyons, where large sections of trains would need to be recovered. Three months later, in July, Bennet and Neguse wrote their own letter to the Biden administration, expressing their opposition to the project.

The original letter the county commissioners sent to government officials expressing concerns over the railway, especially in the event of a derailment that could spill the waxy crude into waterways.
Grand County Board of County Commissioners

Commissioners’ next step  

“These developers stand to make tremendous amount of money marketing this waxy crude either domestic or … for shipment overseas,” Newton told commissioners. “I believe that the citizens of Grand County should not have to absorb the risk and cost of this spill; these owners must be held responsible for all the costs of cleanup and resulting damage.”

Newton, Eddy and Klancke applauded commissioners for their first letter to state officials. At the Jan. 17 meeting, the Trout Unlimited representatives asked commissioners to draft another letter to ensure Grand would not be responsible for any costs related to an accident. Specifically, they asked commissioners to write they oppose the project, unless the three conditions are met.

Klancke stated that the first recommended condition that railroad developers to put a spill recovery plan in place. This plan would require approval by the commissioners, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. An experienced contractor should also be placed on retainer to mitigate the spill after local toxic spill authorities provide the initial containment.

The second condition would be for the developers to provide the county with locally stationed first response equipment, as well as training in toxic clean-up.

The third condition would be for the county to get an escrow account to hold funds to cover the immediate spill expenses and a bond to guarantee the full reimbursement of all associated costs.

Trout Unlimited clarified that they don’t feel the commissioners should join a lawsuit since it won’t prevent the railway — “You never get what you want from a lawsuit,” Newton, a former attorney, said — but the new letter should be sent to as many state and federal entities as possible.  

“We want to tell our elected officials that we oppose this until these terms are met,” Klancke said. “The reason we want the ‘oppose’ word there is because that will give them greater scrutiny to the demands were putting on these trains going through Grand County.”

Commissioners expressed that the railway will inevitably go forward. The entire world still runs on oil, and the commodity must travel somehow. In this case, it’s through Grand’s backyard, as the Union Pacific tracks were run through the county over a century ago.

Amtrak’s California Zephyr train passes through Byers Canyon, which the Colorado River cuts through. The Uinta Railway Basin project would increase train traffic along this route, adding 10 two-mile long tanker car trains each day.
Byron Hetzler/Courtesy photo

“I put gas in my vehicle, I bet everyone here does … we all depend on this infrastructure,” said Commissioner Cimino. “The trains go through here, that’s why we grew, that’s why we happened … what’s the difference between God and a railroad? God doesn’t think He’s a railroad; railroads think they’re God.”

Despite the project’s power, Cimino stated that, “I’m not for putting us at risk to ship oil overseas … let’s try to get some protections.”

Commissioner Linke agreed.

“If we flat-out oppose this project, oil still needs to get from A to B. So does that mean we put 30,000 semis on the road? That’s not the solution, either,” Linke said. “But we want to have the assurances … that we’re not at risk financially or environmentally if there’s a problem.”

Commissioner Randy George stood behind a new letter as well. After the commissioners’ decision, community member Jeremy Krones, executive director of the Colorado Headwaters Land Trust, spoke up.

“I certainly oppose the line coming through the county, but I do like this conversation and what the letter could be,” he said. “If the conversation continues to grow, which is a good thing, it’s getting the public involved … The more citizens of Grand County — full-time, part-time and visitors — who understand this issue, I think the louder the voice will be to at least put in safeguards.”

Over the past two weeks, the commissioners have collaborated with Trout Unlimited and Kayli Foulk, the water quality specialist for Grand County, to finalize their letter. On Feb. 7, they wrote to Sens. Bennet and Hickenlooper, Rep. Neguse, Gov. Jared Polis, the U.S. Forest Service, and several other offices that would be touched by the issue.

In an era where rivers are threatened on many fronts, the letter carried special weight.

“Our watershed not only serves the citizens and visitors of Grand County, but the millions of visitors downstream,” the letter stated. “…Should a spill occur in Grand County, it will have reverberating impacts across the entire state of Colorado.”

On Feb. 7, 2023, the Grand County Commissioners sent Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper and Representative Joe Neguse a letter declaring their formal opposition to the railway unless safety considerations were met. They also sent the letter to Governor Jared Polis.
Rich Newton/Courtesy Image
Previous major train derailments and oil spills

February 2023. A train carrying vinyl chloride derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. The resulting inferno and threat of toxic chemicals and shrapnel caused the evacuation of at least 1,500 people.

December 2022. A train carrying crude oil from the Keystone pipeline derailed  in Northeastern Kansas, spilling oil into a creek. It was the largest onshore crude pipeline spill in nine years.

July 2010. An oil pipeline in Marshall, Michigan, burst and flowed into Talmadge Creek, a tributary of the Kalamazoo River. The cost of clean up was $1.2 billion and took 10 years.

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