Eagle County Board of Commissioners: Uinta Railway court ruling is a victory for protecting our environment
On Aug. 18, the U.S. Court of Appeals overruled the federal Surface Transportation Board’s approval of the Uinta Basin Railway project citing numerous National Environmental Policy Act violations. Eagle County was one of several plaintiffs (and the only local one) in the lawsuit that has, for the time being, halted the project. We applaud the court’s decision and vow to continue working to keep waxy crude oil and other hazardous materials off our riverside tracks.
We were concerned when we discovered an application to the Surface Transportation Board to bring waxy crude from Utah oil producers to Gulf Coast refineries via Colorado by rail. The amount of crude to be transported was not insignificant — up to 18 miles of trains hauling 350,000 barrels of waxy crude oil each day through Eagle County, our neighboring mountain counties, and within feet of the Colorado River.
We objected to this project because “Protect Our Mountain Ecosystem” is one of our core strategic priorities. We believe safeguarding our natural resources, wildlife habitat, water resources, and climate is vital to our community. We have an obligation to present and future generations to be responsible stewards of our home.
The Surface Transportation Board conducted a three-year study of this rail proposal. However, the court deemed the study’s environmental review to be seriously deficient. It failed to consider downstream impacts to the Colorado River, arguably the most important waterway in the Western United States, which provides water to 40 million people, is the lifeblood of 22 Native American tribes, and irrigates 5.5 million acres of agricultural land. Its significance to the Western United States cannot be overstated.
The court also faulted the study for not considering the climate impacts of bringing nearly 15 million gallons of oil to market, even after the study acknowledged it would account for nearly 1% of the entire nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.
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In February 2022, Eagle County filed a petition for review in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals challenging the Surface Transportation Board’s 2021 decision, which approved the construction of the 88-mile rail line in Utah.
In a thorough opinion issued earlier this month, the court found that the Surface Transportation Board had failed to adequately consider the project’s “significant potential for environmental harm” in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act and Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act. The court agreed with Eagle County that the Surface Transportation Board had failed to consider the downline environmental effects to Eagle County and Colorado of transporting millions of gallons of oil through our state, including rail accidents along the Colorado River, and the risk of wildfires posed by these long, heavy oil trains.
Although we were the only public entity in Colorado to bring the lawsuit, several of our community partners helped by filing amicus (or friend of the court) briefs supporting our position. These partners include the towns of Glenwood Springs, Minturn, Avon, Red Cliff, Vail, and Routt, Boulder, Chaffee, Lake, and Pitkin counties. We also received tremendous support from Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Joe Neguse.
We are proud that we took an official stand on this issue, dedicating time and resources to fight this project in what was then an uncertain legal battle. Like many projects that we as a board pursue on behalf of our constituents, it took time, exceptional work from county staff, and partnerships with our colleagues.
At this stage, if the project is to move forward it will essentially have to start over, so the inertia is against it. If it is resurrected, we are confident more eyes will be watching this time, and we will be right there from the start to roll up our sleeves and get to work again.