Aerial view of the train derailment wreckage in East Palestine. (Screenshot from NTSB B-roll recorded Feb. 5, 2023)
The United States averaged three train derailments every day in 2021.
Derailments of freight trains carrying toxic or flammable cargo pose a threat to the ecosystems and communities they pass, much like the town of East Palestine, Ohio. In early February, a train operated by Norfolk Southern derailed, releasing 1.1 million pounds of vinyl chloride. Residents of East Palestine reported skin rashes and streams of dead fish. The catastrophe is a harbinger of what could happen in Colorado if the Uinta Basin Railway is constructed.
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A proposed 88-mile stretch of train tracks, the Uinta Basin Railway would connect oil fields in Utah to the national rail network in Colorado, which ultimately leads to oil refineries on the Gulf Coast. The increased amount of crude oil produced in the Uinta Basin would be transported along the Colorado River, cruising past dozens of communities and into central Denver. Up to 10 two-mile-long trains pulling heated oil tank cars would travel the route every day.
Trains carrying oil have a history of harming wildlife, waterways and people. In 2013, a train loaded with 203,000 gallons of crude oil derailed and nearly demolished the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. Forty-seven people died and the oil contaminated 31 hectares of land. In 2016, an oil train in Moiser, Oregon, derailed. Four oil cars spilled into the Columbia River Gorge. Three others caught fire. Putting out the fire required more than 2 million gallons of water and local communities were evacuated.
Even without the risk of a train derailment, the Uinta Basin Railway would still be an environmental catastrophe.
The construction of the Uinta Basin Railway is supported by Utah’s oil and gas industry. The risk of derailment, however, would be assumed by the communities in Utah and Colorado situated along the oil trains’ route and the millions who rely on the Colorado River for water. Public lands and wildlife, which underpin Colorado’s outdoor industry, could also be compromised by oil spills.
Despite the frequency of train derailments, there are definitive advantages to transporting commodities by rail rather than truck. On average, freight shipping by rail is four times more efficient than trucking and may emit 60%-75% fewer greenhouse gases. In the case of the Uinta Basin Railway, however, any benefit derived from rail’s efficiency would be neutralized by the projected quadrupling of oil production in the Uinta Basin. The result: a whopping 1% increase of U.S. carbon emissions.
Additionally, railways require maintenance to remain safe, and according to a Railroad Workers United member, railroad companies cut corners, compromising safety. The recent Ohio derailment highlights the need for safer rail infrastructure.
Even without the risk of a train derailment, the Uinta Basin Railway would still be an environmental catastrophe. If built, the railway would require blasting through mountains, endangered sage grouse habitat, hundreds of streams, private property and even a roadless area in the Ashley National Forest. Railway construction may cost up to $4.5 billion, and the oil produced won’t be earmarked for American use. Instead, it will be exported to the highest bidders across the globe.
As it now stands, the Uinta Basin Railway will be partially paid for by a community impact fund. Financed by royalties from oil, gas and mining companies, the fund is intended to offset damage to communities caused by mineral, oil and gas extraction. Instead, the community impact fund will be paying for the construction of a railway that will increase oil and gas extraction, which will in turn increase the risk of oil spills, fires and immense health and ecological damage to communities in Utah and Colorado.
Considering the staggering number of annual train derailments and the devastating example of East Palestine, it’s clear that the Uinta Basin Railway is not worth the risk.
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