A Union Pacific train travels along the Colorado River near Cameo on May 16, 2023. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)
A federal court on Friday sent regulators back to the drawing board on their approval of a new short-line railroad in the oil fields of eastern Utah, finding major flaws in how the federal Surface Transportation Board analyzed the risks of increased oil-train traffic through western and central Colorado.
The ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit is a victory for Colorado local governments and environmental groups who oppose the construction of the Uinta Basin Railway, an 88-mile rail extension that would allow drillers in Utah to ship large volumes of crude oil to Gulf Coast refineries. An estimated 90% of the resulting traffic — as many as five fully loaded, two-mile-long trains of oil tankers per day — would be routed through Colorado.
The ruling, issued by Judge Robert Wilkins, grants in part a petition filed by Eagle County against the STB’s approval of the railway’s construction, and the environmental impact statement supporting the approval. Eagle County was joined by five environmental groups in suing to block the project, which is backed by a public-private partnership between Utah county governments and industry.
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“The deficiencies here are significant,” the Court of Appeals ruling states. “We have found numerous (National Environmental Policy Act) violations arising from the EIS, including the failures to: (1) quantify reasonably foreseeable upstream and downstream impacts on vegetation and special-status species of increased drilling in the Uinta Basin and increased oil-train traffic along the Union Pacific Line, as well as the effects of oil refining on environmental justice communities the Gulf Coast; (2) take a hard look at wildfire risk as well as impacts on water resources downline; and (3) explain the lack of available information on local accident risk.”
In a joint statement, Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Joe Neguse, who have urged multiple federal agencies to put a stop to the railway project, called Friday’s ruling “excellent news.”
“The approval process for the Uinta Basin Railway Project has been gravely insufficient, and did not properly account for the project’s full risks to Colorado’s communities, water, and environment,” said Bennet and Neguse. “We’re grateful for the leadership of Eagle County and the many organizations and local officials around Colorado who made their voices heard.”
The court’s ruling vacates key sections in the EIS conducted by the STB prior to its 4-1 vote in December 2021 to approve the railway, as well as a so-called biological opinion prepared with the help of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to evaluate “downline” risks to endangered species and critical habitats along the Colorado River. It also faults the STB for failing to scrutinize what critics have alleged is the Uinta Basin Railway project’s shaky financing.
“The Board failed to weigh the Project’s uncertain financial viability and the full potential for environmental harm against the transportation benefits it identified,” the ruling concludes.
The ruling remands the project’s application for approval back to the STB “for further proceedings in accordance with this opinion.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 12:59 p.m., Aug. 18, 2023, to include a statement from Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Joe Neguse.
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