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Project raises new alarms of oil along Colorado River


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A proposed railway project that would bring a surge in the amount of oil transported along the Colorado River is on hold, but Colorado communities and lawmakers are now concerned about a different Utah project that would increase crude transports through the state.

The proposed expansion of a rail transport facility could result in the shipping of a billion more gallons of oil each year on trains that run along the critical water source. At the Wildcat Loadout facility in northeastern Utah, waxy crude oil extracted from the Uinta Basin is transferred from trucks to trains that carry the substance east through Colorado to be refined on the Gulf Coast.

If approved by the federal Bureau of Land Management, the expansion could more than triple the amount of oil transported from the facility from 1.3 million gallons per day to 4.2 million.

Communities along the rail line, environmental groups and some members of Colorado’s congressional delegation have expressed concern about the potential environmental impacts from the increase, which adds up to just over 1 billion additional gallons transported each year. They worry the Colorado River and lands around the rail line would be at risk if a train derailed and the crude oil spilled.

The Colorado River provides water for 40 million people, irrigates 5.5 million acres of agricultural lands, generates electric power and fuels recreation-based economies across the West. It also provides an important habitat for several endangered species.

“It’s crazy to think a derailment wouldn’t happen,” said Jonathan Godes, a Glenwood Springs city councilman.

Concerned groups and river advocates are urging the Bureau of Land Management to produce a full environmental impact statement — a detailed process they hope would include an examination of potential threats in Colorado from the expansion — instead of a more limited environmental analysis.

“A train derailment that spills oil in the Colorado River’s headwaters would be disastrous to our state’s water supplies, wildlife habitat, and outdoor recreation assets, and the broader Colorado River Basin,” U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse wrote in a joint letter to the BLM about the project. “In addition, an accident on the train line further increases wildfire risk at a time when the West already faces historically dry conditions.”

BLM spokeswoman Angela Hawkins wrote in an email that the agency was gathering information about the Wildcat Loadout expansion and had not yet made a decision about which type of environmental review to conduct.

“As an early step in the environmental review process, the BLM will seek public feedback through a public scoping period,” she said.

At normal outdoor temperatures, waxy crude oil extracted from the Uinta Basin forms a solid about the consistency of shoe polish. It has to be heated to be turned into a liquid for transport.

In previous spills of Uinta Basin oil into rivers, the oil has formed into balls and solids that stuck to rocks or riverbeds.

“Those tend to stick in the water for a very long time and would be very hard to clean up,” said Josh Axelrod with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The proposed Uinta Basin Railway is a separate project that would build an 88-mile rail spur connecting to the existing network. It would increase the amount of crude oil transported through Colorado by a factor of 10, according to projections, and an environmental impact statement produced for that project described how a potential rail accident could spiral into a larger threat.

“If an accident were to release crude oil near a waterway, crude oil could enter the waterway, which would affect water quality,” the 2021 analysis reads. “If the force of the accident were sufficient to ignite the crude oil, a fire could result that could remain confined to a single car or could surround other cars and cause them to rupture if the thermal protection on the other cars were breached or damaged. A fire that surrounds other cars could, in turn, cause a larger fire.”

Axelrod said that while it considers the Wildcat Loadout expansion, the BLM likely will consider an August court ruling ordering a different federal agency to conduct a more thorough environmental impact statement for the Uinta Basin Railway project. The order came in response to a lawsuit filed by five environmental groups and Eagle County.

Progress is now halted on the Uinta Basin Railway while the federal Surface Transportation Board reworks its analysis to include potential impacts to the Colorado River and Colorado communities that would experience increased train traffic.

“That case would give me pause about trying to get through this quickly, because it would be litigated,” Axelrod said.

Many towns along the Colorado River and the Union Pacific railway rely on outdoor recreation and tourism, Eagle County Attorney Bryan Treu wrote in a letter to the BLM.

“The Colorado River and its tributaries are not just the water source for tens of millions of people, businesses, and farms in the Western United States,” he wrote. “They are also the lifeblood of Colorado’s communities and ecosystems.”

In recent years, Glenwood Springs has weathered recurring disasters: wildfire, mudslides and historic rainfall.

A major oil spill or wildfire sparked by a train would be economically devastating, said Godes, the councilman.

“Obviously, these companies are going to ship as much as they can,” Godes said. “You know, a lion is going to hunt. I can’t blame them. But it’s on us as a community and a state to say what is the right amount.”

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