Colorado River Road neighbors wary of the prospect of Uinta Basin oil trains |

Colorado River Road neighbors wary of the prospect of Uinta Basin oil trains

There's concern about a possible derailment

A freight train travels the rail line along the Colorado River Road. A proposed line in Utah could put between three and 10 trains per day of oil cars on the line.
Scott Miller/Vail Daily

Colorado’s federal representatives have lined up to oppose the Uinta Basin Railway project. Eagle County started legal action against the line’s approval. Meanwhile, people who live along the Colorado River Road are watching and waiting.

The rail line — which would carry “waxy” crude oil from fields in Utah to a main rail line that roughly parallels Interstate 70 into Eagle County — was approved in late 2021 by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board. The approval was for between three and 10 trains per day, carrying as much as 350,000 barrels of oil per day.

That approval quickly brought legal opposition from environmental groups and Eagle County. Other counties and communities along the line have joined in the suit.

Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper have joined the opposition, as has state Sen. Dylan Roberts, along with a number of other Congressional and state legislative representatives.

Trains already run east and west along the line from the Utah border through Glenwood Canyon, and along the Colorado River in Mesa, Garfield, Eagle and Grand Counties.

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The rail line up the Colorado River Road is across the river from the road in many places. That could hamper any efforts at mitigating a derailment.
Scott Miller/Vail Daily

Bill Stephens’ business, Stephens Nursery, is at Dotsero, as the rail line leaves the I-70 corridor on its way to the Moffat Tunnel. Stephens, a lifelong resident of the area, said he believes fossil fuels — especially those produced in this country — are a “necessary evil” right now. But, he said, the line along the Colorado isn’t a great way to move that fuel.

Is there another way?

The trains don’t need to go through Glenwood Canyon, Stephens said. “There are already a lot of bottlenecks,” he added. Those bottlenecks have only increased since the 2020 Grizzly Creek Fire, which shut down both I-70 and the rail line for a time. A debris slide in July of 2021 also shut down the line, although for far less time than the highway.

Stephens believes oil from the Uinta Basin should be shipped along a more reliable line, perhaps the line that parallels Interstate 80 through Wyoming.

In the wake of several high-profile rail derailments, Stephens noted he can recall a couple of derailments in the canyon.

“I just wish they’d (pipeline) it somewhere,” he said.

Judy Hotz and her husband live along the Colorado, a few miles downstream from Colorado Highway 131. The family owns property on both sides of the river.

“It’s a concern, especially after that mess in (New Palestine) Ohio,” Hotz said.

A spill along the line “would be pretty bad,” Hotz said, adding that people need to be “honest in what they do.”

Hotz noted that the Union Pacific Railroad, which owns the line, frequently has maintenance people working on the line.

“They make sure those tracks are in good shape,” Hotz said.

Trains run across the river from Roundup River Ranch, a camp for children with serious illnesses, that is several miles up the river road.

Camp CEO Sarah Johnson noted that the kids at camp enjoy watching the trains go by, and the Amtrak passenger train conductors always give a whistle-blast and wave back to the kids.

Asked about the potential of oil trains, Johnson took some time to think, then emailed the following statement:

“Roundup River Ranch is committed to ensuring the safety of our campers and their families, volunteers, and staff. We trust the EPA will ensure that the proposed development meets all applicable environmental requirements.”

The first, first responders

If there’s a rail accident, the Gypsum Fire Protection District will be the first of the first responders.

Tank cars roll along the rail line along the Colorado River Road.
Scott Miller/Vail Daily

District Chief Justin Kirkland noted there’s already “a lot” of hazardous materials being transported along the line. In the case of any derailment, the response will vary depending on the location. A large section of the track is across the river from the road and hard to access, Kirkland added.

The fire district communicates with Union Pacific, which has its own hazardous materials team. And Eagle County has a regional hazardous materials response group. That group, as well as state teams, would be called in to try to mitigate any disaster.

While many rail cars already carry fuel and other hazardous materials, Kirkland noted that trains from the Uinta Basin would only add to the existing risk.

What about the governor?

While a number of federal and state elected officials have lined up to oppose the Uinta Basin Railway Project, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis hasn’t yet issued a statement.

According to Polis’ Press Secretary Conor Cahill, “The governor continues to share a number of the concerns that our Colorado communities and Colorado’s recreation and tourism industry have raised with the proposal. He continues to monitor this issue and evaluate the state’s role given largely federal actions to date.”

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