Grand County residents speak out against Uinta Basin Railway
Concerns over derailments, stopped trains blocking access to neighborhoods
The catastrophic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 3 has brought danger of freight train accidents to the forefront of people’s minds. A month later, a second train derailment in Ohio reinforced this danger. Derailments have Grand County residents especially worried because trains carrying hazardous material are set to travel through their backyard.
Utah oil producers plan to construct a railway to transport waxy crude oil through Colorado. The Uinta Basin Railway would connect Utah’s oil fields to the national Union Pacific Rail Line. This means tanker cars carrying 350,000 barrels of waxy crude will rumble through Grand County each day.
The crude will travel through Gore and Byers canyons, following the Colorado and Fraser Rivers. The trains then pass through Winter Park’s Moffat Tunnel towards Denver, and eventually down to gulf coast refineries. Every town in Grand County would experience this increase in train traffic.
In January, Grand County commissioners wrote a letter of opposition to the railway unless safety measures were put into place. They addressed their letter to state officials and other stakeholders, emphasizing that a derailment of the tanker cars would be catastrophic to the environment.
During their Feb. 21 meeting, commissioners discussed another concern on top of derailment – stopped trains that prevent the passage of vehicles. This concern was brought to their attention by Tabernash resident Tim Moreland. Resident Cindy Bendall also sent a letter of concern to commissioners.
The Union Pacific line runs along the Fraser River and into the town of Tabernash. As the main line nears Moreland’s neighborhood, it branches off in a spur – a short branch to manage rail traffic. Access to the neighborhood is through one railroad crossing over the spur. Moreland provided the commissioners with a letter outlining his fears for the safety of his neighborhood.
“Over the years we have been blocked in and out of the neighborhood because the train will park over the crossing – sometimes for hours – blocking our only neighborhood access,” he wrote. “Blocking our single crossing creates an obvious hazard that denies access for any emergency services. In addition, when we are blocked for extended periods – residents will crawl over or under the train to get home.”
At the meeting, Moreland recommended that the railroad build a secondary access to solve this issue. He added this is especially important because the crude oil trains will be two-miles long and much more likely to extend over the crossing.
His second recommendation for the railroad would be to build a secondary track along the Fraser Flats. As trains travel from Tabernash to Fraser, they pass through the flats for over two miles. This secondary track in a wide-open area would be the perfect alternative to the spur for stopping trains.
“I’m just hoping that this board can be our voice to ask for some mitigation,” he said. “Then our representatives in Washington can elevate our concerns because it feels like the (impacts) got looked at hard in in Utah, but I don’t feel like they’ve looked at the impacts down the line at all for the increased traffic and the train size.”
The commissioners thanked Moreland for bringing the safety concern to their attention, and stated they would do everything in their power to mitigate risk of stopped trains.
Commissioner Merrit Linke stated that the Uinta Basin Railway project is coming on the heels of East Palestine’s derailment. Experts are still investigating the health and environmental impacts of the fiery accident. This might lend an edge of urgency to the commissioners’ requests.
“There’s a lot of screw ups with that incident. I think that the railroads do need to be accountable … for these small towns up the line that they tend to just want to ignore,” said Linke.
Commissioners stated they will proactively research other places of concern on the rail line and pursue grant opportunities to fund solutions – such as building a bridge or railroad siding.
“Whether it’s this Uinta line or something else, the rail’s going to likely grow, and … they’re not going to build a new track,” said Commissioner Richard Cimino. “It’s a dilemma.”
Linke recommended sending another letter with Moreland’s comments to their state officials and the Union Pacific Railroad. Commissioner Cimino stated their best course of action was to involve Grand County Road and Bridge. Currently road and bridge contacts the Union Pacific Railroad to break train cars when they are stopped at crossings. However, the railroad never responds to these calls. Cimino recommended improving the communication between road and bridge and the railroad to ensure someone will actually break the trains.
“I think we need to get serious about not just focusing on … the potential additional traffic from the Uinta project, but projects overall,” added Commissioner Randy George. “It’s been a problem going on for decades and it’s not getting better, and certainly the railroad has a lot more technology than they ever did before.”
The commissioners concluded they will proactively search for solutions of all train blockages in the county. They will also forward Moreland’s comments to Governor Jared Polis’ office, U.S. senators and representatives, as well as the Union Pacific Railroad.
U.S. legislators are also formulating their letters of opposition to the railway — on March 6, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Joe Neguse addressed a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, requesting that the U.S. Forest Service not issue the final permit for the railway.
Grand County residents still have time to make their voices heard to federal officials. Railway proponents have recently passed a proposal to allow roughly $2 billion of the railway’s construction costs to be funded through federally issued bonds. Residents who oppose federal funding of the project can write Pete Buttigieg, Secretary of U.S. Department of Transportation by March 9. Residents can also attend a virtual meeting on March 9, held by Utah’s Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, which is leading the railway project. Visit SCIC-Utah.org to attend the meeting.
Address concerns to Secretary Buttigieg at the following address or email — The Honorable Pete Buttigieg Secretary, U.S. Department of Transportation, 1200 New Jersey Avenue, S.E. Washington, D.C. 20590. Email: DOTExecSec@dot.gov
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