Railroad tracks through Browns Canyon

Railroad tracks line the east bank of the Arkansas River through Browns Canyon National Monument.

Like many local residents, when Friends of Browns Canyon first learned that the Colorado Midland and Pacific Railway had leased Union Pacific’s local rail line, we were excited at the prospect of trains returning to the valley. After all, CMP promised to “assess the interest” of local communities “for commuter passenger rail services.”

As we learned more about CMP, our excitement turned to dismay at the prospect of trains hauling heavy crude oil rumbling through the valley.

The oil trains first came to light last march when Trains magazine published an article titled “Union Pacific’s Tennessee Pass could become short cut for Utah crude oil.” The article revealed that Rio Grande Pacific was negotiating for the use of the local rail line.

Colorado Midland and Pacific is a subsidiary of RGP, a holding company “that would operate a new railroad proposed to haul heavy crude oil out of Utah’s Uinta Basin” then “to refineries on the Gulf Coast.” The Tennessee Pass line “would serve as a shortcut for the up to 400,000 barrels per day” of heavy crude oil to be transported by up to 10 trains per day.

In July, Jason Blevins wrote an article for The Colorado Sun echoing the Trains article: “Trains carrying freight, crude oil and, possibly, passengers, could be rolling through the Royal Gorge, Salida, Browns Canyon, Buena Vista, Leadville, Minturn, Avon, Eagle and Gypsum,” Blevins wrote.

The lease of the Tennessee Pass line to RGP confirms what Stephens and Blevins realized months before most of us, and an article in The Salt Lake Tribune describes a typical Uinta Basin oil train as having 100 tanker cars.

In other words, we could see 1,000 oil tankers a day rolling down the tracks along the Arkansas River.

But the Uinta Basin Railway has not yet been approved. As part of the approval process, the Surface Transportation Board published a draft environmental impact statement and is accepting comments about the proposed rail line through Jan. 28.

The EIS identifies “unavoidable impacts” to water resources, wetlands and endangered species habitat on public lands in Utah. All three potential routes would harm wilderness-quality lands, including a roadless area in Ashley National Forest.

For comparison, Browns Canyon National Monument includes the Aspen Ridge Roadless Area, which provides critical habitat for multiple plant and wildlife species. As advocates for the protection of these natural resources, Friends of Browns Canyon believes this railway should be not be built in Utah because of the damage it will cause to our public lands there.

Additionally, a thousand oil tankers a day rumbling alongside more than 100 miles of the Arkansas River’s Gold Medal fishery amplifies the risk posed by the Uinta Basin Railway. The Arkansas’s Gold Medal fishery represents decades of hard work to clean up our valley’s toxic mining legacy.

Before the cleanup, heavy metal pollution from abandoned mines made the Arkansas too toxic for rainbow trout, which now thrive in the river. One oil train derailment would undermine the hard-earned Gold Medal designation that attracts anglers from around the world. And how many people would want to go rafting in a river polluted by crude oil?

An oil spill in the river would be devastating to the local economy. According to an Envision Chaffee County report, recreation activity in the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area generated $72M for the local economy in 2017. So transporting oil through the valley represents a dire threat to the local economy.

An oil spill would also be detrimental to downstream communities, farmers, and ranchers, all of whom depend on clean water delivered by the Arkansas River. The damage gets worse if derailed oil tankers catch fire. The foam used to extinguish oil fires contains PFAS, the same chemicals that contaminated the city of Security’s drinking water supply.

Without the new railway in Utah, Uinta Basin oil will continue to be processed at Salt Lake City refineries. So our best opportunity to protect our communities, our economy, and our natural resources is to oppose the Uinta Basin Railway.

Comments opposing the railway must address issues within the scope of the EIS. As we sift through thousands of pages of documentation, we’ll continue to share information and recommendations at brownscanyon.org. In the meantime, we’re requesting an extension of the comment period, and we encourage others to do so as well.

Friends of Browns Canyon

Reed Dils, president

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