Uinta Basin Railway opposition unites Colorado towns, Utah backcountry residents
Railroad through a roadless area subject to recent legal challenge, community protest
Darrell Fordham is heartbroken. It took years for the resident of Lehi, Utah, to purchase 20 acres above Utah’s Argyle Canyon and build a cabin for family retreats. “I’ve sunk about $150,000 into that property,” he told Aspen Journalism. “We bought it back in 2006 just as a place to raise our kids. Get ’em out of the city, get ’em unplugged and off the cellphones.”
The cabin is at about 6,000 feet at the edge of the Ashley National Forest on the West Tavaputs Plateau, surrounded by aspens and conifers in a small, tightknit, off-the-grid community known as Argyle Canyon Estates. “Being off-grid and about 3 1/2 miles off the pavement, the quiet is the whole appeal of that property,“ said Fordham. But that quiet is in jeopardy due to the proposed Uinta Basin Railway (UBR).
The UBR is not yet under construction but received necessary approvals from the Federal Surface Transportation Board (FSTB) in December 2021 and the U.S. Forest Service in July 2022. The 88-mile-long railroad would connect the fracked-oil fields in northeast Utah’s Uinta Basin to the national rail network. The crude would then be transported in heated tanker cars through Colorado on its way to Gulf Coast refineries.
Fordham began organizing his neighbors against the UBR in 2019 when it looked like two potential alignments — the Indian Canyon route and the Wells Draw route — would run through local properties and uncomfortably close to his community. As the Argyle Wilderness Preservation Alliance, the community wrote letters against the UBR in July 2020, shortly after the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition (SCIC), a quasi-governmental board created in 2014, applied for approval from the FTSB. Fordham said the group hired a lawyer that year and filed lawsuits in Utah district court but to no avail.
In 2014-15, 26 potential UBR routes were identified in Utah Department of Transportation feasibility studies, but none passed the initial screening process. Five years later, the SCIC added the Indian Canyon, Wells Draw and Craig routes as alternatives. The Craig and Wells Draw routes were eventually scrapped. The Indian Canyon route morphed into the preferred 88-mile Whitmore Park route, named for a large valley south of the Tavaputs Plateau.
According to maps provided by Fordham, the Whitmore Park route would still pass 2,550 feet from his property line. He said it feels as if his concerns have fallen upon deaf ears. “I think it’s communities like ours that are impacted by things like this because we’re just common people,” he said. “We don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight the government and the big oil companies, so they know they can just run it right over the top of us and there’s really nothing we can do about it.”
FSTB legal appeals in the works
In February, environmental groups and Eagle County filed separate appeals in response to the FSTB’s decision last December to approve the UBR. (The two cases have since been consolidated.) At issue are the approval decision and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s September 2021 biological assessment, upon which the FSTB relied to make its decision.
Most Uinta Basin oil is trucked to refineries in Salt Lake City, but production is capped at 80,000 to 90,000 barrels per day due to air pollution restrictions on the Wasatch Front. By connecting the Uinta Basin fracked-oil fields to the national rail line at Kyune, Utah, the UBR promises to quadruple production by bringing Uinta Basin crude — which must be heated for transportation purposes so that it doesn’t solidify — to the global market.
But increased oil production means increased air pollution in the Uinta Basin. Ted Zukoski, CBD attorney, told Aspen Journalism that air pollution in the basin is already listed as marginal. “This means it’s on the edge of becoming a nonattainment area because of wind inversions that trap pollution from drilling in the basin and lead to very unhealthy air quality.”
A 2013 study by state and federal agencies revealed federal ground-level ozone standards violations in the basin due to oil and gas production. In 2016, the state of Utah recommended nonattainment designations for National Ambient Air Quality Standards in five Utah counties, including Duchesne and Uintah, both in the Uinta Basin. A lag in oil and natural gas production lowered methane levels from 2015 to 2020. But methane leaks in production infrastructure effectively canceled out those gains. As of October, the Uinta Basin remains in nonattainment status.
Zukoski said the FSTB ignored the air pollution impacts and the downstream impacts of greenhouse gases released from consumers burning gasoline refined from Uinta Basin crude. “It could lead to as much as 53 million tons of additional CO2 going into the atmosphere,” he said. “The Forest Service knows how bad climate change is, so it’s hypocritical for this agency to support this project.”
Eagle County argues that the FSTB failed to look at the cumulative impacts of increased rail traffic on the Union Pacific line, which passes through the county, and possible impacts should Colorado’s Tennessee Pass railway be reactivated. County officials added that the scope of the FSTB’s environmental analysis was too narrow, focusing only on the 88 miles of the UBR in Utah.
Colorado officials join the legal fray
In late October, the city of Glenwood Springs and the towns of Minturn, Avon, Red Cliff and Vail filed an amicus brief in support of Eagle County and the FSTB appeal. Karl Hanlon is an attorney with Karp, Neu, Hanlon, a Colorado firm that works with the cities of Glenwood Springs, Minturn and Red Cliff.
“What’s being proposed is 18 miles a day of train cars on the main [Union Pacific] line going through the city of Glenwood Springs and passing alongside the Colorado River through Garfield, Eagle and Grand counties,” he told Aspen Journalism. “The risks are tremendous with regard to the potential for an accident, the socio-economic impacts and the environment.”
Hanlon added that the FSTB did not consider whether running up to 185,000 heated tanker cars full of waxy crude alongside Interstate 70 is a good idea, particularly through Glenwood Canyon. The 2020 Grizzly Creek Fire shut down I-70 through the canyon for two weeks. Rockslides and mudslides from heavy rains the following summer closed the canyon again, resulting in lengthy detours for commercial trucks and other traffic, and decimating the Glenwood Springs economy at the height of tourist season.
“One major incident in Glenwood Canyon ends the livelihood of Glenwood Springs,” said Hanlon. “Not only is it a huge environmental disaster that is almost impossible to clean up, it will be the death knell for the community.”
He said the FSTB’s decision ignored Coloradans. “Frankly, the board just kind of thumbed their nose at all these communities,” he said. “FSTB focused on the 88 miles of new line in Utah and did their entire analysis there.”
Routt, Boulder, Chaffee, Lake and Pitkin counties, near the Union Pacific line, also signed on to the amicus brief. Routt County Manager Jay Harrington told Aspen Journalism that U.S. Highway 40 is the main northern traffic detour when I-70 is closed. “A rail accident does not have to occur close to Routt County to cause problems,” he said. “Every time I-70 [in the Glenwood Canyon ] is closed, traffic is rerouted right through here.”
The amicus brief references climate change impacts, wildfire risks from heated train cars, and the domino effect of an oil spill on downstream Colorado River users. Hanlon said the FSTB should start over and revisit the indirect impacts, including communities outside Colorado. “That waxy crude has to go a long way to get to a refinery,” he said. “There are communities all across the [country] going down towards the Gulf Coast that are facing similar impacts from this.”
USFS: A railroad is not a road
The Forest Service greenlighted a 12-mile stretch of the Whitmore Park route in July that would cut through an inventoried roadless area (IRA) in the Ashley National Forest. Prior to the approval, CBD and other conservation groups sent a letter to national Forest Service Chief Randy Moore, urging him to reject the Ashley National Forest’s application. But Moore refused, stating in a November 2021 response letter, “By definition, a railway does not constitute a road under the Roadless Rule.”
Then, in July, Ashley National Forest Supervisor Susan Eickhoff approved that 12-mile portion of the UBR. Two months later, CBD, Living Rivers, Sierra Club and Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment filed suit. Zukoski said the argument is more than whether a railroad is a road; it’s also about the UBR’s effect on the general intent and purpose of a roadless area. “We raised many issues, including a failure of the Forest Service to consider the impact on roadless values,” he said.
The 2001 Roadless Rule established wilderness attributes and values to define an IRA, such as remoteness, quiet and solitude within the natural world. But, Zukowski said, roadless areas offer more than solace for humans. “The Forest Service understood that these areas had a particular and special value because of their protection of storehouses of biodiversity,” he said.
The UBR track, with a right-of-way between 100 and 200 feet wide, would run mostly parallel to U.S. Highway 191, cutting through private property and agricultural fields in Indian Canyon before slicing through the Ashley National Forest. The railroad’s footprint would alter an estimated 167 acres within the IRA, with an additional 235 acres affected in the construction process but planned for reclamation. Three tunnels on Forest Service land, including two spiral tunnels and a portion of a 3-mile-long straight tunnel, would have a total length of 2.6 miles.
In a January interview for ChannelV6.com, a local broadcaster in northeast Utah, Kyle Robe, deputy project manager for Rio Grand Pacific, discussed the spiral tunnels planned for Indian Canyon and the 3-mile-long straight tunnel. “[We will] drill holes into the face of the rock and high-pressure grout those holes,” he said. Then come massive machines called “roadheaders.” “They’ve got a big arm and big rotors on the end with teeth on them [that] chip away at that rock,” said Robe. “We’ll get about 25 feet a day on each end of rock that we’ll tear out of the mountain.” Robe did not respond to interview requests from Aspen Journalism. A spokesperson for the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition also declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
Track construction also means carving out miles of cuts, siding track and embankment fill, and placing culverts and other infrastructure, including five bridges. Temporary work areas, including camps to house workers, could be up to 1,000 feet wide. Once completed, up to 10 trains per day would rumble through the IRA, each hauling up to 100 tanker cars of crude.
CBD attorney Wendy Park pointed to a bigger, overarching issue. “Under [President Joe] Biden’s 2021 executive order, combating climate change is something that all federal agencies should be doing everything in their power to address,” she told Aspen Journalism. In his 2021 letter to CBD, Moore cherry-picked components of the executive order to support the touted economic benefits of the project, stating that the UBR would support Biden’s policy to build a sustainable economy. But Biden’s order states that the United States will develop a finance plan to promote “the flow of capital toward climate-aligned investments and away from high-carbon investments.”
Eickhoff, of the Ashley National Forest, also amended the 1986 Ashley National Forest Land Resource Management Plan (LRMP) to allow for the UBR corridor through the IRA. The LRMP calls for maintaining the area’s scenic values. But Eickhoff’s amendment exempts the UBR right of way.
The SCIC must meet conditions of the Forest Service approval, including federal and LRMP mitigation measures, before track construction can begin. But despite approving the UBR last summer, the Forest Service has yet to issue the actual permit.
The agency could still change course, which is what activists in Utah, Colorado and points east are hoping for. Protests last week in Boulder, Denver, Salt Lake City and Glenwood Springs called on U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to revoke the permit. “It’s worthwhile to continue to put pressure on the Biden administration and Secretary Vilsack because this project is a carbon bomb,” said CBD campaigner Deeda Seed. “This is a poster child for the harm from climate change.”
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