Forest Service nixes permit that would have allowed Colorado River-adjacent oil railway

The U.S. Forest Service has rescinded its approval of plans to build 12 miles of rail through protected Utah woodlands — stopping a large-scale crude oil conveyance project in its tracks.

The 12-mile segment, which would have run through northeastern Utah’s Ashley National Forest, was a key component of the proposed Uinta Basin Railway — an 88-mile stretch of rail that would run alongside the Colorado River.

The project would serve to connect Utah fossil fuel producers to the larger national railway network and ultimately enable these sites to sell their resources to Gulf of Mexico refineries.

But officials across the border in Colorado, as well as environmental groups, have long lambasted the plan — citing potential risks of catastrophic oil spills adjacent to a river that serves as the lifeblood of the U.S. West.

The Forest Service’s withdrawal of its approval follows an August U.S. Court of Appeals decision that overturned the project’s authorization and deemed its required environmental impact statement (EIS) in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

That authorization, as well as the problematic EIS, were the products of the Surface Transportation Board — an independent federal entity that regulates certain railroad issues.

The August ruling, which occurred in response to a petition filed by Eagle County, Colo., and local organizations, determined that the EIS violated NEPA protocols from several angles.

The decision cited deficiencies in quantifying “foreseeable upstream and downstream impacts on vegetation” and in accounting for oil refining impacts on Gulf Coast environmental justice communities.

The EIS also did not “take a hard look at wildfire risk as well as impacts on water resources downline,” while additionally failing to provide sufficient information on local accident risk, per the ruling.

Utah’s Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, a “public interlocal” partner in the rail project, petitioned the August ruling, but the court in December declined a rehearing on the subject.

Susan Eickhoff, supervisor of Ashley National Forest, attributed the Forest Service’s decision to revoke its approval to the fact that the court had vacated both the EIS and a biological opinion prepared by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“If the deficiencies are addressed and resubmitted for consideration, the Forest Service may issue a new decision,” Eickhoff wrote.

The withdrawal was met with widespread enthusiasm among the environmental organizations and politicians who had spearheaded the fight against the railroad.

Two Colorado Democrats — Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Joe Neguse — applauded the decision as a pivotal move toward protecting the Colorado River and those who depend upon it.

“A derailment along the headwaters of the Colorado River could have catastrophic effects for Colorado’s communities, water, and environment,” Bennet said in a statement.

Neguse, meanwhile, described the Forest Service’s decision as instrumental in “avoiding the dangers that accompany this project.”

The withdrawal, he explained, serves to help Coloradans preserve the “state’s water supplies, wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation assets, and the broader River Basin.”

Ingrid Wussow, mayor of the nearby city of Glenwood Springs, emphasized the importance of preventing “this potentially devastating project from moving forward.”

“This project had the potential of creating an environmental disaster that would have impacted the water source for over 40 million Americans,” she added.

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