Eagle County will challenge Utah rail line’s approval

New line could ship crude oil next to the Colorado River through Eagle County

An interstate rail line runs adjacent to the Colorado River through much of western Colorado. This photo of a truck accident was taken in Byers Canyon in Grand County.
Nancy Dulac/courtesy photo

Eagle County officials are launching an effort to keep rail cars filled with crude oil off the rail line that runs along the Colorado River through much of western Colorado.

The U.S. Surface Transportation Board in December approved an application for a new rail line to run from oil fields in Utah to the national rail line that runs roughly parallel to Interstate 70 and the Colorado River.

If running at full capacity, the line could carry between three and 10 trains per day, with a maximum daily haul of 350,000 barrels of oil.

The line was proposed by a group called the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, a group of county and tribal governments. The idea is to ship what’s known as “waxy” crude oil to refineries located mostly in Texas.

The crude oil is too heavy to ship through pipelines. Trucking that much oil would be unwieldy. That makes rail the best way to haul the oil.

The proposal was supported by the local governments, which touted the economic development opportunities the roughly $1 billion project could provide. It was also supported by both of Utah’s U.S. senators and others.

The board received, and rejected, petitions to reconsider the decision.

The Eagle County commissioners in late January approved going to U.S. District Court in either Denver or Washington, D.C., to request a reconsideration of the decision.

Local concerns

Eagle County Commissioner Matt Scherr said the county has a number of worries about the line.

Scherr said while the Tennessee Pass line, unused since 1996, isn’t currently being considered for hauling oil, the county is concerned that the Surface Transportation Board could allow use without a broader review.

That seems to have been the case with the proposal to link to the line running along the Colorado to the Moffat Tunnel.

Eagle County Attorney Bryan Treu said the commissioners and his office believe the Surface Transportation Board made “procedural errors” in its decision.

The Tennessee Pass rail line runs through Eagle County along the Eagle River, as seen in this photo, and Chaffee County along the Arkansas River.
Courtesy photo

That includes making the transportation decision before an Environmental Impact Statement was completed. The Dec. 15 decision noted that the board’s Office of Environmental Analysis completed a “thorough” review of the project.

But the applicants had asked the board to consider transportation aspects of the project before it considered environmental issues.

Those issues were apparently considered only along the proposed line, not the national line to which it connects.

Treu said the decision failed to look at any “indirect” environmental impacts.

A lengthy dissent

While the board voted to approve the line, there was one dissent, from board member Martin Oberman, an appointee of President Joe Biden. Oberman is the current board chair of the group.

Oberman’s lengthy dissent is written in the Surface Transportation Board decision.

Oberman wrote that the project’s environmental impacts “outweigh its transportation merits.”

Oberman’s dissent stated that the board’s decision shouldn’t have been made before the environmental review was finished.

Oberman also questioned the line’s future financial viability given the current move away from fossil fuels. Oberman noted the “likelihood that it would be the public — and not private investors — who could bear the cost of constructing an ultimately unprofitable rail project.”

There’s always risk

Freight and passenger trains run every day between Denver and Glenwood Springs on the line that goes through the Moffat Tunnel. Those trips seem pretty uneventful.

Eagle River Watershed Council Director Holly Loff said she couldn’t remember the last time there’s been a derailment on the line through Eagle County, though she’s concerned about possible accidents on the line.

“Accidents happen,” Loff said, adding that anyone who’s fished, boated or floated along that stretch of river knows how close the rail line is to the water.

A Texas railroad company plans to route crude oil trains from Utah’s Uinta Basin through Gore Canyon along the Colorado River near Kremmling.
Jason Blevins/The Colorado Sun

That’s particularly true in especially narrow stretches including Little Gore Canyon, just downstream from the Pumphouse area east of State Bridge.

“Any accident with oil would be devastating,” Loff said. Beyond immediate effects on fish, wildlife and recreation in the immediate area, Loff noted the potentially disastrous effects on downstream agricultural and municipal users.

“There are far-reaching implications, and people should be concerned,” Loff added.

State Rep. Dylan Roberts, an Avon resident, said what he’s read about the project is potentially worrisome. But, he added, an interstate rail line is almost entirely out of the state Legislature’s purview.

“I get calls and emails all the time,” Roberts said. “I have to tell them it’s all federal law, and not in our jurisdiction.”

That leaves the county’s trip to federal court.

Treu acknowledged that the request may have a hard time passing muster with a federal judge, adding that standards generally defer to federal agencies.

But, Loff said, the county should “definitely” pursue the attempt.

In a broader sense, Scherr said the Uinta line approval could be the model in the future.

“Allowing this to go forward (without a review of broader impacts) sets a precedent,” he said.

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