Garfield County commissioners defend Uinta Basin Railway against local opposition

Garfield County commissioners are bucking the Western Slope trend against the proposed Uinta Basin Railway, 88 miles of new track that would connect the eastern Utah oil fields to Gulf Coast refineries via the national railroad network running through Colorado. 

In a February work session between the Garfield County Board of County Commissioners and the New Castle Town Council, the representatives of New Castle, located 12 miles west of Glenwood Springs, expressed concerns about possible derailments due to an increase of oil trains and the speed at which trains roll through town. Members of the Garfield County Board of County Commissioners responded with their first public comments on the railway. 

“How many oil tankers or gas tankers or whatever it is go by New Castle every day?” asked Commissioner Mike Samson, describing concerns about the Uinta Basin Railway as “fear mongering.” For six minutes, he talked about how he considers the current federal energy policy a “disaster.” “We’re in trouble,” he said, citing overregulation of the fossil fuel industry. “I’m not saying it’s the best thing in the world to be transporting these products all the time. But there has been a concerted effort in the nation to kill anything having to do with energy independence. Not long ago, we were an energy-independent nation, and two short years later, we’re not even close, and it’s getting worse.” 

Commission Chair John Martin did not take up the political mantle, opting instead to hand the New Castle council a binder of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s “Hazardous Materials Marking, Placing and Placarding” guide, which identifies markings that denote hazardous materials transported by rail or truck. He said the issue is safety. “I’ve put together this book for many communities on how to read, how to find and how to spot all of these items that are coming through on the railroad and by truck,” he said, adding that it is up to New Castle to identify those materials. “Then you’ll have a true vision of what is going through New Castle on a daily basis.”

Commissioner Tom Jankovsky told the council, during its Feb. 7 work session at New Castle Town Hall, that Uinta Basin oil is already coming through New Castle by train. “But I think the real question is how many more trains are going to be coming through New Castle or how much longer will the trains be, and is that acceptable?” 

According to S&P Global Commodity Insights, in 2021, Uinta Basin producers shipped “about 12,000 barrels per day to U.S. Gulf Coast refiners by rail.” An oil tanker car carries 642 barrels of waxy crude when full, which means about 18 cars per day are currently traveling through New Castle. But the Federal Surface Transportation Board’s final Environmental Impact Statement shows that, if the Uinta Basin Railway is completed, it would carry up to 350,000 barrels per day out of the Uinta Basin, 90% of which would go through Colorado to Gulf Coast refineries. That’s 315,000 barrels per day, or 26 times the volume on the tracks in 2021.

Jankovsky said Garfield County is an oil-and-gas county with 25% of county revenues coming from natural gas. The board of commissioners championed the now-defunct Jordan Cove liquid natural gas export terminal and pipeline project, which could have opened Asian markets to Garfield County natural gas. He said that exporting gas would have benefited county coffers and helped Japan transition away from coal-fired power plants. “So, we’re more in line with (the Uinta Basin Railway) than we are opposed to it,” he said. “You won’t see us in a lawsuit on that issue.” 

Amy Hadden Marsh/Aspen Journalism
A train hauling oil tanker cars heads east past the town of New Castle.
Amy Hadden Marsh/Aspen Journalism

Colorado communities express concern

Concerns about the proposed railway continue to grow throughout Colorado. Already this year, Grand County commissioners and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet have written letters to federal officials with varying degrees of opposition. 

In a March 6 joint letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Neguse and Bennet requested that Vilsack suspend the final decision on the 12-mile section of the Uinta Basin Railway through a roadless area in Utah’s Ashley National Forest. The U.S. Forest Service approved this section in July, but a special-use permit has not been issued. The Center for Biological Diversity and other conservation groups filed suit against the Forest Service’s decision and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s biological opinion in September. The court has not set a schedule for briefing. 

Grand County’s 2022 letter to Neguse, Bennet and U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper said the county was not opposed to the railway but was worried about derailments and emergency-response capabilities. The Union Pacific line follows the Colorado and Fraser rivers in the county and winds its way up to the Moffat Tunnel at 9,200 feet before descending into Denver. The county urged lawmakers to “assist with seeking additional protections against potential downline impacts.” 

But the county changed its tune between last March and last month. After a presentation by conservation group Trout Unlimited early this year, county officials decided to conditionally oppose the Uinta Basin Railway. A Feb. 7 letter to Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and 35 county, state and federal officials cited three conditions that needed to be met in order for Grand County to support the project: a comprehensive mitigation response plan specific to Grand County must be approved by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and Grand County Government; an experienced contractor retained by Utah’s Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, at the helm of the Uinta Basin Railway project, must be prepared to release derailment response plans before construction on the railway begins; and an escrow account for mobilization and clean-up costs must be established, and a bond issued for long-term remediation.

Glenwood Springs, on the eastern end of Garfield County, signed on to an amicus brief in October, joining five Colorado counties and four municipalities in support of a 2022 lawsuit filed by neighboring Eagle County against the Federal Surface Transportation Board’s 2021 approval of the Uinta Basin Railway. That lawsuit is scheduled for oral arguments in May. 

The most recent objection to the proposed railway came Tuesday from a bipartisan group of Colorado state lawmakers, including five Democrats and Republican Sen. Perry Will, whose district includes a portion of Garfield County. The group wrote a letter to Vilsack and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, requesting that the project be suspended. 

“We ask that you carefully consider this project’s potential impact, including the devastating damage it could do to public health, our water resources, our environment, and our economy, when making the respective decisions charged to your departments,” the letter says. “Further, we find the potential use of public taxpayer dollars through government approved tax-exempt private activity bonds (PABs) to finance this project to be highly objectionable, and we would strongly urge this approach to financing be rejected.”

The Seven County Infrastructure Coalition has asked the U.S. Department of Transportation for nearly $2 billion in private activity bonds to finance the Uinta Basin Railway, well over the original cost estimate of $1.35 billion for the preferred Whitmore Park route. This isn’t the first time the coalition has asked for public funding for the railway. In 2018 and 2019, the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition requested and received $27.9 million in Utah state funds usually reserved for improvement projects in communities on the front lines of oil and gas activity. The Center for Biological Diversity, which opposes the Uinta Basin Railway, filed suit in 2020 against the state’s decision, citing the misuse of taxpayer funds. A Utah District Court judge ruled in favor of the coalistion in September 2021.

Amy Hadden Marsh/Aspen Journalism
A deer hit by a train lies between the Union Pacific tracks and Burning Mountain Park in New Castle.
Amy Hadden Marsh/Aspen Journalism

Train speed an issue for New Castle

New Castle Town Councilor Caitlin Carey reminded commissioners that a local librarian in November was killed when struck by a Union Pacific freight train at the Kamm Avenue crossing, close to the center of town and the wastewater treatment plant. She said most trains go too fast through town and they pass near Burning Mountain Park, a popular playground for kids.

“They come through here at full bore all day,” she said. 

The board of county commissioners agreed to support the town’s efforts to slow trains coming through town. But Jankovsky told the council that this was a New Castle issue. Carey disagrees.

“(The trains) come all the way through Garfield County,” she told Aspen Journalism. “It’s a county issue, not an issue siloed to just New Castle, Silt or Rifle.” 

Carey said that even though she’s happy to have support from the board about the speed issue, she is not satisfied with their response to town concerns.

“If our commissioners really want to serve our community well, they need to listen to the people who are concerned about this and not call it fear mongering,” she said. “This particular train and its payload has nothing to do with Garfield County’s resources. That’s why it was frustrating to have it politicized like this.”

She added that the recent derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, hit a little too close to home.

“We have a really good example of something that came through a town about the same size as New Castle that has been catastrophically impacted,” she said. “In New Castle, the train goes 60 to 100 feet from our residents’ homes and businesses.” The U.S. Department of Transportation’s guide is “helpful,” she said, “but if people know this is hazardous and corrosive and flammable on every car that goes by behind their houses, I’m not sure that’s going to eliminate concern.” 

According to Federal Railroad Administration statistics, 89 derailments occurred throughout Colorado between 2019 and 2023. BNSF Railway was responsible for 54% of the accidents and Union Pacific was responsible for 27% of them.  

Martin said in an interview that everyone needs the DOT guide, including New Castle officials, but he doesn’t think they’ll have any luck slowing down the trains.

“We will make a concerted effort in a letter to the transportation folks as well as the railroad itself,” he said. “But the government, the county commissioners can’t tell the train to slow down.” 

Martin supports the Uinta Basin Railway.

“You cannot have (electricity) without oil and gas,” he said, citing the need to manufacture new components for the national grid. “I support the energy industry because we cannot survive without it.”

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