Bruell column: Oil and water don’t mix; let’s protect the Colorado River  |

Bruell column: Oil and water don’t mix; let’s protect the Colorado River 

Debbie Bruell

When it comes to protecting our rivers here on the Western Slope, most of us are on the same page. From fishing enthusiasts to farmers, liberals to conservatives, folks around here understand that clean water is our lifeblood. Our health, environment, and economy all rely on plenty of clear, clean water flowing through our river beds.

Recently a broad range of lawmakers and residents have stepped up to protect our waters from the risks of the Uinta Basin Railway (UBR) project. The UBR plans to transport at least 5.46 million gallons of waxy crude oil a very toxic and flammable substance — through Colorado every day, including a stretch alongside the Colorado River from western Garfield County through the Glenwood Canyon. 

Federal analyses predict that if the new railway is built, a fully-loaded oil train will derail somewhere along the route between Kyune, Utah and Denver about once each year and, about every four years, one of those derailments will result in an oil spill. 

As a bipartisan letter from Colorado legislators to Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg points out, “Given the heated nature of this transport and the widespread drought we are experiencing, this project also further increases the risk of wildfire ignition across the Western Slope.” 

The recent rail crash in East Palestine, Ohio should remind us that the risk of derailment and toxic spill are real. Over a million pounds of carcinogenic vinyl chloride poured into the soil and water of this small, rural town last February.

A major reason the risk of derailment is so high is that the rail, oil and chemical industries have lobbied intensely against higher standards that would help prevent derailments. Over the past two decades, the rail industry alone has spent $653.5 million on federal lobbying, including lobbying against safety measures for trains carrying hazardous substances.

They’ve lobbied against a proposed requirement that all trains carrying toxic and flammable materials use electronic braking systems, which enable trains to stop more quickly and keep cars at the back of the train from smashing into cars in front of them when there is a sudden stop. They’ve also lobbied against requiring a minimum number of rail heat sensors, which warn train crews about potential derailments. 

The rail industry argues that safety measures like these would be too costly — yet they have no problem using their profits to fatten the wallets of corporate executives and shareholders. Between 2011 and 2021, the seven largest freight railroad companies in the U.S. paid out $191 billion on stock buybacks and dividends to shareholders. That’s $53 billion more than they spent on capital investments those same years.

The rail industry’s strategy of profit-over-safety has also led them to lay off workers. Between 2018 – 2020, the industry cut 40,000 jobs, leaving fewer employees to perform the same number of car and track safety inspections, and fewer crew members to respond to emergencies.

If rail corporation executives aren’t willing to dip into their very deep pockets to spend more on basic safety measures, then why should we allow them to put the Colorado River at such great risk?

To add insult to injury, the UBR is asking taxpayers to subsidize the project. The same people who decry any government involvement in public life — including rail safety standards — have no problem asking for government assistance to help fund their projects. The UBR is requesting $2 billion in tax-exempt bonds from the U.S. Department of Transportation, a government subsidy which would amount to about $80 million per year. 

These types of DOT bonds are typically authorized for the construction of infrastructure projects that benefit the general public, such as highway improvements and mass transit projects, not for the profits of private industry. 

Garfield County commissioners are defending the UBR project, even though it would provide no jobs or revenue for our county. The risks are worth it, they say, because it would help our nation reach energy independence — even though the fossil fuel corporations will ship the Uinta oil overseas, if that’s what will reap them the greatest profit.

If these corporations themselves were actually concerned about energy independence in the U.S., why would they be shipping over 9 million barrels of crude oil and refined fuels out of the country each day — all while raking in record profits? Real energy independence requires that we reduce our unhealthy reliance on fossil fuels. The UBR project would only drag us deeper into that reliance, and pull resources away from our transition to renewable energy. 

There are simply no good reasons to support this project and plenty of reasons to oppose it. Join me in urging Secretary Buttigieg to deny UBR’s request for taxpayer dollars and thanking our Democratic and Republican lawmakers who have stepped up to protect our section of the Colorado River.

Debbie Bruell of Carbondale chairs the Garfield County Democrats and is a past member of the Roaring Fork Schools Board of Education.

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