Colorado legislators take Uinta Basin Railway concerns to EPA, calling derailments ‘shockingly common’
In the third letter from Colorado lawmakers to government regulators issued this month, Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Joe Neguse are now appealing to the Environmental Protection Agency for help in evaluating the risks of the Uinta Basin Railway Project.
The railway project aims to create a new railway connection in Utah which would link up with an existing rail line in Colorado that runs through Eagle County along the Colorado River.
The letter says an existing EPA review of the project “had several shortcomings,” including an omission of impacts to Colorado such as “the risk of a derailment and oil spill in the headwaters of the River.”
Project supporters say the Uinta Basin Railway Project would move an essential product in a safe and cost-effective way, but detractors say that product — waxy crude oil extracted in Utah’s Uinta Basin — is too toxic of a substance to be transported alongside the Colorado River with how common train derailments are in the United States.
Bennet and Neguse also sent a letter expressing concerns with the Uinta Basin Railway Project to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack earlier this month, and that letter was followed by another letter to Vilsack and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg from members of the Colorado legislature, expressing similar concerns.
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All of the March letters have referenced the Norfolk Southern train crash in East Palestine, Ohio, which is estimated to have caused the death of more than 40,000 aquatic animals and was deemed “100% preventable” by the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board.
Bennet and Neguse’s Tuesday letter to the EPA says an additional review from the agency “is especially critical in light of the recent train derailment and environmental disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, which laid bare the danger of moving hazardous materials by rail.”
But it also referenced other derailments which have happened in the months that followed.
“Additional train accidents in West Virginia and Washington within weeks of each other demonstrate that derailments in this country are shockingly common — in fact, there are more than 1,000 per year on average according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics,” Bennet and Neguse wrote.
Two more train derailments occurred within 12 hours of each other this week, a Canadian Pacific train that derailed near Wyndmere, North Dakota, spilling liquid asphalt and two spilled ethylene glycol on Sunday; and a Union Pacific train that crashed near San Bernardino, California, derailing 55 cars, spilling iron ore and leaking fuel.
Bennet and Neguse also added letters of opposition from Eagle County and the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments Water Quality and Quantity Committee. Bennet’s staff said the senator, who has represented Colorado in the U.S. Senate since 2009, has received additional letters of concern from the city of Glenwood Springs, Grand County, Gilpin County, Boulder County, and a collection of local governments represented by Colorado Communities for Climate Action. Several non-governmental organizations, including Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Colorado Water Congress, and Trout Unlimited have also raised objections to the proposed oil trains, Bennet’s press secretary said.
The full text of the letter follows:
Dear Administrator Becker:
We write to share our ongoing concerns about the risks to Colorado’s communities, water, land, air, and climate from the Uinta Basin Railway Project (the Project). If completed, the Project would enable the shipment of up to 4.6 billion gallons of waxy crude oil per year from Utah through Colorado to the Gulf Coast on as many as five trains per day. These trains would run over 100 miles directly alongside the headwaters of the Colorado River (the River) – a vital water supply for nearly 40 million Americans, 30 Tribal nations, and millions of acres of agricultural land.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has an obligation to advise other federal agencies on the adequacy of their environmental analyses pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). However, EPA’s review of the Surface Transportation Board (STB)’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) of the Project had several shortcomings.
First, it focused solely on the Project’s risks in Utah with no evaluation of its potential harm to Colorado, including the risk of a derailment and oil spill in the headwaters of the River. Second, this review also failed to include any analysis of the Project’s effect on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. We urge you to conduct a supplemental review to fully account for these potential harms.
This review is especially critical in light of the recent train derailment and environmental disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, which laid bare the danger of moving hazardous materials by rail. Additional train accidents in West Virginia and Washington within weeks of each other demonstrate that derailments in this country are shockingly common – in fact, there are more than 1,000 per year on average according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
A train derailment that spills oil in the headwaters of the River would be catastrophic to our state’s water supplies, wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation, and the broader River Basin. In addition to Denver, major cities outside Colorado rely heavily on the River for drinking water and other critical needs, including Phoenix, Las Vegas, San Diego, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Tucson, and Albuquerque. An accident on the proposed railway would not only imperil the River’s water supplies, but also increase wildfires as the West faces a 1,200-year drought.
Across Colorado, local and county governments have raised grave concerns about the Project’s local impacts (for example, see attached letters from Eagle County, CO and members of the CO General Assembly). These communities have further noted that the Project has advanced based on a deeply flawed environmental analysis that understated its potential dangers. But even that flawed analysis concluded that, if completed, this Project would double the risk of a derailment in Colorado and produce an oil spill roughly every four years.
We urge EPA to conduct a supplemental review that accounts for the full risks to Colorado’s communities, water supplies, and environment, as well as its effects on climate change.