Uinta Basin Railway concerns prompt Sen. Michael Bennet, Rep. Joe Neguse to visit Grizzly Creek

Ray K. Erku
Glenwood Springs Post-Independent
U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse points to an empty oil barrel, which was placed beside a podium, during a press conference at Grizzly Creek on Friday.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

Within a sea of Patagonia and sunglasses, some of Colorado’s state and federal lawmakers stood beside the banks of the Colorado River at Grizzly Creek on Friday afternoon, objecting to a major proposal that would significantly intensify oil-train traffic along the Colorado River in Garfield County and beyond.

The controversial Uinta Basin Railway Project could ship 4.6 billion gallons of waxy crude oil per year from Utah to Gulf Coast refineries by way of Garfield County, including 100 miles alongside the headwaters of the Colorado River.

Joining in on the rhetoric against the proposed railway, among others, were U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, Colorado State Sen. Dylan Roberts, U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse and Garfield County’s own State Rep. Elizabeth Velasco — all Democrats.

Also joining the press conference as spring sunshine glinted off the water and anglers launched boats nearby were Glenwood Springs Mayor Jonathan Godes and Rep. Julie McCluskie from Summit County.

“Derailments in this country are shockingly common — more than 1,000 per year, on average,” Bennet said, also mentioning more recent catastrophic derailments like what happened in East Palestine, Ohio. “Moving hazardous materials by rail can be dangerous for the communities and the environments that they pass through, and that’s why we’re here today, to oppose the oil trains and the Uinta Basin Railway project coming through Colorado.”

A press conference featuring Colorado legislators unfolds at Grizzly Creek on Friday.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

The collective sentiment toward Uinta is nothing new, however, as Bennett has essentially spent the past two years trying to prevent Unita’s dream from becoming a reality. More recently, Bennet, Neguse, Velasco and other Colorado Democrats have urged several federal agencies — including President Joe Biden and the U.S. Forest Service — to put a halt to the proposed project. Support has also come from State Sen. Perry Will, R-New Castle, although he was not in attendance during Friday’s riverside press conference.

“That’s why we’ve been pushing the Biden administration,” Bennet said. “Congressman Neguse and I have been pushing the administration for almost a year to stop this project.”

Neguse applauded Bennet’s persistence on gaining ground in Washington when it comes to legislation that impacts Colorado and the Rocky Mountain West.

“From my vantage point,” Neguse said, “you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand that this project, which the Senator said would enable 4.7 billion gallons of oil to travel adjacent to this river, is not a smart idea.”

Sen. Michael Bennet speaks on the proposed Uinta Basin Railway at Grizzly Creek on Friday.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

Velasco said Unita’s project could be “catastrophic” if its new 88 miles of proposed track connects to Colorado’s existing railway network.

In an interview after the event, Velasco also said she has continued the effort to reach Latino constituents about negative impacts of the Uinta basin Railway.

“I do look forward to engaging our Spanish speakers and our Latinos because we are environmentalists,” she said. “We care about having access to clean air and clean water for our families, and I’m sure that we have their support to make sure that we stop this project.”

Velasco said the Latino community is a mobile community, and that could “really be in jeopardy if there’s an accident.”

Rep. Elizabeth Velasco speaks during a press conference over the proposed Uinta Basin Railway at Grizzly Creek on Friday.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

“We depend on labor for restaurants, our hotels, the resort industry, construction, the outdoor industry,” she said. “So, it will be catastrophic for families to not have access to their income, for the roads to be closed, and it would really impact our small businesses and our working families.” 

Uinta’s $3 billion proposal itself would send up to five, 2-mile-long trains across Colorado and Garfield County per day. That equals out to 4.6 billion gallons of crude oil per year chugging across Colorado and traversing right beside the Colorado River, a place that’s no stranger to previous derailments. A 105-car Union Pacific train in fact derailed right at Grizzly Creek in 2004, toppling over five cars that dumped coal right beside the Colorado River.

“This winter, seemingly every day we’ve had I-70 shut down because of weather-related accidents, so to say that this canyon is anything but an incredibly fragile place, to say that this river is anything but in crisis in the American West, is ignoring the realities,” Godes said. “So, when we talk about what this means to this community, what this means to the state, the region — Tennessee Pass, Eagle County — we just cannot have something like that coming through our community.”

Amid this massive proposal, many communities across Colorado and Garfield County have experienced a complete lack of dialogue with the railroad itself.

Glenwood Springs Mayor Jonathan Godes shakes hands with Sen. Michael Bennet at Grizzly Creek on Friday.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

“The fight that Joe and I have been involved with, for example, is train horns on the Front Range to make sure that the trains going by elementary schools, they’re not blasting trains as loudly as they can,” Bennet said. “When they’re going through the main streets of our communities, that there’s some appreciation for the fact there are businesses there and that they have to take safety seriously.

“Those are just some examples where we’ve been able to push them in another direction.”

While opposition to Uinta is thick among many officials, leaders and locals, Garfield County itself still garners revenue from the natural gas industry, with about 11,971 active wells. And for years, Garfield County commissioners have been staunch supporters of the industry. They also have expressed support for Uinta.

Asked whether the rail traveling through Garfield County and Glenwood Canyon is perhaps the sole viable way to transport crude oil through this fragile ecosystem, Bennet said there are simply other routes.

“This train has no business bringing this oil from Utah through Colorado, period,” Bennett said.

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