Federal judge pauses Uinta Basin Railway project that would ship millions of gallons of oil through Colorado

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Matthew Brown/AP Photo
A BNSF Railway train hauls crude oil near Wolf Point, Mont. Shipping oil by rail has become far more common as domestic drilling booms in North Dakota, Montana, Texas, Colorado and other states.

A federal board erred when it gave approval to a railway project in eastern Utah that could ship billions of gallons of crude oil along the Colorado River, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled on Friday. 

The Uinta Basin Railway project would have connected oil drilling in Utah with major rail networks with 88 miles of new tracks. The project drew widespread criticism from environmental groups, local officials in Colorado and U.S Senator Michael Bennet, which raised alarms about safety and environmental risks from increased oil traffic.

Earlier this year, Eagle County leaders, along with others, sued to stop the project, which would have sent up to nine more trains a day through Colorado and transported millions of gallons of crude to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. The lawsuit argued that the U.S. Surface Transportation Board improperly approved the project. 

The federal court ruled the agency violated the National Environmental Policy Act and failed to properly assess and disclose potential risks and environmental damage, including impacts to the Colorado River, which supplies water to more than 40 million people across the West. 

“The (Surface Transportation) Board is required to compare both sides of the ledger, not just acknowledge that both sides exist,” Judge Robert Wilkins wrote in the ruling.

Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry said she and other commissioners were happy with the ruling. 

“It states that they have to go back and take a better look at the environmental impact, that’s what our concern has been was those trains coming along the Colorado River,” she said. “The great potential for damage not only to Eagle County but all the communities along that mountain corridor.” 

The team backing the new rail line said they disagreed with the ruling and would continue to pursue the project. 

“We are ready, willing, and capable of working with the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to ensure additional reviews and the project’s next steps proceed without further delay,” the project’s backers wrote in a statement. 

Bennet, along with U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, sent a letter to the Biden administration in March opposing the project and in April visited Glenwood Canyon to discuss their issues with the proposal. On Friday, Bennet and Neguse released a joint statement celebrating the ruling. 

“This ruling is 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. A new review must account for all harmful effects of this project on our state, including potential oil spills along the Colorado River and increased wildfire risk.”

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