Potential harms to Colorado of Utah oil train project highlighted — again — by lawmakers

Sen. Bennet and Rep. Neguse had already sought help from several federal agencies. Now they’ve gone to EPA.

By: - March 29, 2023 4:00 am

The Union Pacific railroad along the Colorado River through Glenwood Canyon is pictured on Sept. 2, 2021. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

Two of Colorado’s Democratic members of Congress on Tuesday called on yet another federal agency to put the brakes on a proposed Utah railway that could send up to five oil trains per day through central Denver and other sensitive areas along the Colorado River watershed.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Joe Neguse wrote in a letter to Environmental Protection Agency Regional Administrator KC Becker that the Biden administration’s approval of the 88-mile Uinta Basin Railway was based on a “deeply flawed environmental analysis.”

Backers tout the planned $2.9 billion railway as the largest new rail project in the United States in nearly 50 years, purpose-built to allow oil produced in Utah’s Uinta Basin to be shipped to Gulf Coast refineries via the national rail network — a route that runs directly through Colorado’s central mountain communities and the densely populated Front Range.


Bennet and Neguse said in their letter that the EPA’s review of the project’s environmental impact lacked analysis of both the risks the railway would pose to Colorado and the broader climate impacts of incentivizing further oil and gas production in the Uinta Basin.

“We urge you to conduct a supplemental review to fully account for these potential harms,” Bennet and Neguse wrote. “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.”

A train derailment that spills oil in the headwaters of the (Colorado) River would be catastrophic to our state’s water supplies, wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation, and the broader River Basin.

– Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Joe Neguse

At least 21 oil train derailments have occurred in the U.S. and Canada since 2013, according to a 2021 report from the nonprofit Sightline Institute. Because the Uinta Basin produces a type of oil known as “waxy” crude, the tank cars used to transport it need to be heated, creating additional safety and environmental risks.

The letter to Becker, who leads EPA’s Region 8 headquarters in Denver and formerly served as speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives, follows similar objections lodged by Bennet and Neguse with the Department of Transportation, the Department of Agriculture and the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality.

The U.S. Surface Transportation Board voted 4-1 in December 2021 to approve the project, and in July of last year the U.S. Forest Service granted a key permit allowing a section of the proposed railroad to cross a protected area in Utah’s Ashley National Forest. The project is backed by a public-private partnership between seven Utah county governments, Drexel Hamilton Infrastructure Partners and the Rio Grande Pacific railroad company. 

But Colorado’s Eagle County and five environmental groups have sued to block the project, with dozens more local governments across the state expressing their opposition. Mountain communities worry about the oil trains’ potential to spark dangerous wildfires, while officials in Denver estimate that the Uinta Basin project could quadruple the number of rail cars with hazardous material traveling through the city daily. 

“A train derailment that spills oil in the headwaters of the (Colorado) River would be catastrophic to our state’s water supplies, wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation, and the broader River Basin,” wrote Bennet and Neguse. “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.”


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Chase Woodruff
Chase Woodruff

Reporter Chase Woodruff covers the environment, the economy and other stories for Colorado Newsline.