The Canyons: Oil and water could mix in Colorado River country known for its beauty, fragility
This is Part 3 of Down the Line, a Newsline series tracing the route that eastbound oil trains from the proposed Uinta Basin Railway in Utah could soon take through western and central Colorado.
Part 3: The Canyons
Click here for an overview of “Down the Line.”
(Colorado Newsline) Beneath the limestone cliffs, the trunk of a lone, dead lodgepole pine stuck straight up from the brush along the riverbank, looming over a remote stretch of the Colorado River in northern Eagle County.
Inside the train cars passing by on the opposite side of the river, a voice came over the loudspeaker, pointing out to passengers the dark shape perched inside the nest atop the barren tree.
“The two bald eagles are gone, but that’s one of the younger ones that hatched this year,” the Amtrak conductor said. “They won’t get their crown of white feathers on top of their head until they’re almost a year and a half old — they look like giant crows, really, the younger ones. Maybe we’ll see mom and dad fishing down here in a little while.”
No part of the 51-hour journey between Chicago and Oakland is more vital to the appeal of Amtrak’s California Zephyr than the 100-mile segment between stops in Glenwood Springs and Granby. Few passengers opt for the Zephyr because it’s an efficient mode of cross-country travel; they’re in it for the scenery, and the high country of the central Rocky Mountains provides that in abundance.
The Dotsero Cutoff, as this part of the Union Pacific’s Central Corridor is known, became in 1934 the last major segment of the current route to be completed. It ended a 75-year struggle by Colorado leaders to establish a relatively direct east-to-west rail route over the Rockies to Utah, finally eliminating the southward detour to Pueblo and the Royal Gorge that had added nearly 200 miles to the journey between Denver and Salt Lake City.
With Union Pacific’s closure of the Tennessee Pass line to the southeast in 1997, the Dotsero Cutoff became the only way to travel from the Western Slope to the Front Range by rail. It’s the route that as many as five fully loaded, two-mile-long crude oil trains from Utah’s Uinta Basin could soon take on their way to refineries in Texas and Louisiana, drastically increasing the flow of hazardous materials on some of the most rugged stretches of railroad track in the country.
The project, backed by a partnership between seven Utah county governments and private industry, has received several key approvals from the Biden administration, despite mounting protests from Colorado officials. The railway’s backers have signaled they will soon apply for $2 billion in tax-exempt Private Activity Bonds that must be approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
By the time eastbound trains pass through Glenwood Springs, they’ve already gained nearly 2,000 feet in elevation since crossing the Colorado-Utah border, and they will gain roughly 3,000 more as they continue their charge upwards through the Colorado River Valley, nearly as far as the river’s headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park.
After turning to the northeast at Dotsero, leaving Interstate 70 behind, the Central Corridor mainline winds through narrow gorges and sensitive wetlands along little-traveled dirt roads, and even into remote corners of wilderness where there are no roads at all. Amtrak conductors, pulling double duty as tour guides, tell passengers of the only two ways to pass through a four-mile stretch of Gore Canyon southwest of Kremmling: in comfort on the California Zephyr, or over the dangerous Class V rapids on the Colorado River below.
This was the region where the historic Denver & Rio Grande Railway, which ruled Colorado’s railroads for over a century before being acquired by the Union Pacific in 1996, earned its boastful motto of “Through the Rockies, Not Around Them.” And it’s where many Coloradans fear the Uinta Basin Railway’s crude oil trains would be most likely to cause an accident.
A derailment or spill in this region could be disastrous for communities and ecosystems along the river, the railway’s opponents say, especially in an era of worsening impacts from climate change. The grandeur of these mountain vistas goes hand in hand with their vulnerability, and many of them are more at-risk than ever — even before a daily deluge of crude oil trains is added to the mix.
“With the great beauty and awe of these sheer cliffs, they tend to crumble,” said Jonathan Godes, a City Council member and former mayor of Glenwood Springs. “It’s a very fragile place, as we’ve seen over just the last several years.”
General Motors executive Cyrus Osborn was traveling through Glenwood Canyon on a new diesel locomotive his company had built for the Denver & Rio Grande Railway on July 4, 1944, when the idea came to him: a passenger car with a domed roof that would allow tourists traveling the Rockies by rail to take in the sights.
The first California Zephyr train rolled through the canyon five years later with five gleaming steel Vista-Dome cars in tow, inaugurating a railroading tradition that lives on today in the domed sightseer lounges still offered on the modern-day Zephyr and six other Amtrak passenger lines. So instantly iconic were the Vista-Domes that in 1950 the Denver & Rio Grande erected a monument in Glenwood Canyon commemorating the site where Osborn had his vision, and for decades a scale replica of the silver sightseeing coach sat atop a stone arch by the Colorado River near Grizzly Creek.
But today the monument sits among the other relics in the yard at the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden. It was evicted in the late 1980s, when crews building the final section of I-70, after decades of planning and design, finally entered the canyon.
Opened to traffic in 1992, the 12.5 miles of tunnels, bridges, viaducts and retaining walls between Dotsero and Glenwood Springs were some of the last of the more than 40,000 miles of interstate envisioned by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, and, at $40 million per mile, some of the most expensive.
Nationally, the project marked “the completion of the original U.S. interstate highway system,” federal officials declared. In western Colorado, it symbolized the final victory of cars and trucks over the iron horses that had first steamed into the Colorado River Valley a century earlier.
For the 2,000-foot rock walls of Glenwood Canyon, though, a century passes in the blink of an eye. The Colorado River has been carving through them, inch by inch, for over three million years — a process that neither the railroad nor the interstate could ever hope to stop.
Rockfalls and washouts have long wreaked havoc on any form of transportation attempted through the canyon. The dirt paths and two-lane state roads that preceded the interstate’s construction were some of Colorado’s most dangerous. Since 1976, at least 21 train accidents reported to the Federal Railroad Administration have occurred within the canyon’s boundaries.
Rocks on the track were to blame for the derailment of a California Zephyr train in Glenwood Canyon in 1968, and a “heavy build-up of snow on the track” caused an Amtrak derailment on Christmas 1988. A train hauling 14,000 tons of coal derailed near Grizzly Creek due to broken spikes in 2004. The partial collapse of a tunnel wall just east of Glenwood Springs caused another Union Pacific freight train to derail in May 2017.
But a new era of Glenwood Canyon dangers began with back-to-back disasters in 2020 and 2021. First, the Grizzly Creek Fire scorched more than 32,000 acres in and around the canyon during what became by far Colorado’s worst wildfire season on record. A year later, heavy rainfall triggered mudslides in the fire’s burn scar, sending heavy debris flows plummeting down its cliffs and into the river below and closing I-70 and the railroad for weeks.
Cleanup and repair costs after the 2021 mudslides ran into the tens of millions of dollars, and Gov. Jared Polis’ administration has asked the federal government for a total of up to $116 million for projects that would mitigate the risks of similar damage in the future.
For many people in Colorado, the Grizzly Creek Fire and its aftermath became a potent symbol of the dangers and disruptions the state faces as climate change worsens. Now, for many of those Coloradans, the fragile Glenwood Canyon epitomizes the additional risks posed by the Uinta Basin Railway — which would not only increase heavy freight traffic and hazardous-materials shipments through the canyon but also help fuel the very climate crisis that’s putting it under stress in the first place.
“It’s incredibly problematic, running 10 miles’ worth of toxic waxy crude through some of the most sensitive and fragile and dangerous territory, possibly in the country,” said Godes.
In some places, the debris flows in August 2021 buried the Union Pacific tracks under several feet of mud. Less severe flows and washouts have continued to impact rail operations through the canyon, including on two separate occasions last month.
“Fortunately, there wasn’t a train going through, but it completely buried that line,” Eagle County Commissioner Matt Scherr said of the 2021 mudslides. “And at this point, if you up the volume of rail traffic to the extent they’re talking about, it’s just a much higher likelihood that any landslide that does happen is going to hit a train.”
“We are aware of the hazards of mudslides in Colorado, which impacts both rail and highways, and we are working closely with the Colorado Department of Transportation to mitigate risks,” a Union Pacific spokesperson wrote in an email.
In April, some of Colorado’s top elected officials chose a spot beside the river in Glenwood Canyon for a press conference in which they denounced the railway project in some of their strongest language yet. Standing beside an oil drum representing one of the roughly 315,000 barrels of crude that could pass through the canyon daily, Democratic U.S. Sen Michael Bennet said approval of the project “would be a black mark on the president’s environmental record.”
“This train has no business bringing this oil from Utah through Colorado, period,” Bennet said. “Anybody who has spent any serious time in this canyon understands what the risks really are — what these mudslides really look like, what these fires really look like.”
‘Elevated risk factors’
There were no mudslides or blizzards in Glenwood Canyon on the night of January 15, 1909 — just a busy railroad, two train crews speeding towards their destinations, and a system that lacked standardized safety measures and regulations.
By the time the crew of the westbound Denver & Rio Grande passenger train came around the bend near Spruce Creek and saw the oncoming freight train, it was too late. The passenger train’s engineer had misjudged the time by 10 minutes, and the two trains collided head-on in a fiery crash.
The Dotsero train wreck, which killed 21 people, injured more than 30 others and made headlines all around the country, remains one of the deadliest rail accidents in state history. It was one of a series of disasters in Colorado and across the country that added up to a crisis of railroad safety around the turn of the 20th century, as traffic on the rails continued to rise in the absence of accurate timekeeping, reliable equipment and adequate signaling systems.
Public outcry over such wrecks helped lead to the establishment of the Colorado State Railroad Commission in 1907. In its second biennial report to the state Legislature, issued in the wake of the Dotsero wreck, the commission decried “the appalling loss of life and property in collisions” plaguing the state. The mounting death toll was, the commission wrote in a special safety report that year, “due, in part, to the heavy volume of business being done by the roads of this state, and the further fact that many of our mountain roads have long, heavy grades, and not infrequently the air pumps or brakes, for some unaccountable reason, fail to respond at the critical period.”
Overcoming legal challenges brought by railroad companies against its constitutionality, the Railroad Commission led the charge to improve train safety in Colorado. Its work proved successful and popular enough that in 1914 the Legislature expanded the body and renamed it the Public Utilities Commission, granting it the authority to regulate the electric, gas, water and streetcar industries the way it had the railroads.
Technology and regulation have steadily improved rail safety over time, and the American Association of Railroads, an industry lobby group, calls this the safest period in the history of railroading. Industry groups are especially keen to point out data showing that transporting hazardous materials by rail is significantly safer than doing it by truck.
This train has no business bringing this oil from Utah through Colorado, period.
– U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet in April
But a recent rise in longer, heavier trains in accordance with an industry practice known as “precision scheduled railroading” has prompted new safety concerns, and critics fault the rail industry for dragging its feet on implementing measures like modern braking systems and higher standards for tank cars. U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, in a letter to Norfolk Southern following the February train derailment and chemical fire in East Palestine, Ohio, urged an end to “vigorous resistance by your industry to increased safety measures.”
Among the rail industry’s critics, the East Palestine incident and other subsequent derailments have raised fears that the bill could be coming due on decades of corporate consolidation and investor pressure on railroads to cut costs and maximize profits. Such fears were also prevalent a decade ago, when a major increase in the amount of crude oil being shipped by rail resulted in dozens of reported derailments, spills, fires and explosions, leading environmental activists to launch campaigns nationwide against what they labeled “bomb trains.”
Oil-by-rail shipments peaked at an average of over 1 million barrels per day in 2014, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a surge that experts say was never likely to be permanent. A 2014 congressional report explained that the increase occurred after “rapid expansion of oil production … strained the capacity of existing pipelines,” and accurately predicted that the crude shipments by rail would ebb as the “pipeline bottleneck” was eased. By last year, those shipments had fallen to an average of about 268,000 barrels per day.
That makes the Uinta Basin Railway different than many other oil-by-rail projects in the recent past, since there’s no prospect of a conventional oil pipeline replacing it. For however long into the future drillers in eastern Utah are producing large volumes of waxy crude oil, federal regulators expect the railway would direct the vast majority of it through Colorado. At an estimated capacity of up to 315,000 barrels per day — more than was shipped by rail across the entire country in 2022, including imports from Canada — the project would make the Union Pacific route between the Kyune, Utah and Denver the nation’s new oil-by-rail superhighway.
In a “downline analysis,” the federal Surface Transportation Board predicted that Uinta Basin oil trains could, on average, cause a rail accident between Kyune and Denver once every 13 months. Accidents severe enough to cause a spill of up to 30,000 gallons of crude oil, regulators predict, will occur roughly once every five years.
But a coalition of 10 Colorado city and county governments argued in a legal brief earlier this year that those projections understate the true risk level. They cited federal data and an analysis by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration that found that trains hauling crude oil tankers are “heavier in total, more challenging to control... (and) more prone to derailments when put in emergency braking.”
“The Board neither disclosed nor analyzed these elevated risk factors, relying instead on apples-to-oranges national averages that are inapplicable to these longer, heavier trains,” wrote the governments in a brief in support of a lawsuit filed by Eagle County and five environmental groups against the STB over its approval of the railway.
Though Bennet and others in Colorado’s congressional delegation have called on the Biden administration to halt the project, some railway opponents want state-level officials to take a more active role in opposing it. So far, opposition from Gov. Jared Polis’ administration has been muted, though the governor, through a spokesperson, has expressed “concerns” about the project.
The state’s Public Utilities Commission may have been established as a railroad watchdog, but today the industry makes up only a small part of its regulatory portfolio. Following federal legislation that abolished the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1995, “the PUC doesn't have as much authority as it did previously,” an agency spokesperson wrote in an email. The agency denied repeated interview requests with state rail safety officials, citing a lack of “media training” among staff.
In the mid-2010s, state and local opposition in the Pacific Northwest successfully blocked a series of proposals that would have dramatically increased oil-by-rail shipments to West Coast refineries. The largest of those projects, a proposed rail terminal in Vancouver, Washington, would have generated roughly the same amount of oil-train traffic as the Uinta Basin Railway, but it was abandoned in 2018.
“We fortunately were able to defeat those, because the environmental and human health risks are just too great,” said Kristen Boyles, a Seattle-based attorney with environmental group Earthjustice who worked to defeat the projects. “Which is why it’s so frustrating to have had that history, and to have had that public outcry about the danger these oil trains pose, and have that sort of die down a little bit — and then, nope, it pops up again with the train in Utah.”
As trains bound for Denver approach Gore Canyon from the southwest, Amtrak conductors point out another favorite landmark: the wreckage of several cars strewn about the steep rocky slope across the river. They tumbled hundreds of feet down from the cliffside road overhead decades ago, and recovery of them is too dangerous.
Around the next bend, the wreckage disappears, and so does the road. For the next four miles, the Union Pacific railroad travels along the river alone.
On a snowy night in November 2014, a westbound Union Pacific freight train had made it roughly halfway through this remote stretch when it “had rocks fall into train,” according to the brief accident report filed later. Though only one car in the half-empty train jumped the tracks, the derailment and track damage closed the route for days.
It was the sixth train accident in Gore Canyon in the previous 16 years, according to safety records from the Federal Railroad Administration. The lead locomotive hauling a 99-car eastbound train derailed in November 1998 due to a “rock slide in face of train.” Another rock slide near one of the canyon’s tunnels derailed nine cars in 2005. The accident report filed after a six-car March 2000 derailment there simply states that the train “went into undesired emergency.”
Perhaps more than any other scenario, opponents of the Uinta Basin Railway are haunted by the thought of what could happen if an oil-train accident occurs in one of these remote mountain canyons.
“These are very difficult places to access quickly, which makes cleaning up a spill more dangerous,” said Kirk Klancke, president of the Colorado River Headwaters Chapter of anglers’ conservation group Trout Unlimited. “The biggest threat in a spill in any of these canyons besides access is going to be the fact that it's not just oil, which has a lot of cleanup procedures, it’s waxy crude.”
The Uinta Basin’s oil is known as “waxy” crude because of its high degree of paraffin wax, which gives it the consistency of shoe polish at room temperature. It comes out of the ground at higher temperatures and is typically stored in heated tanks before being transported.
In recent months, the railway’s proponents have accused critics of spreading “misinformation” about spill risks, claiming that the waxy crude would be transported “as a solid, not a liquid,” lowering the likelihood that large volumes could be spilled in the event of a derailment.
But in an interview, Keith Heaton, director of the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, the public entity that has led the Uinta Basin Railway’s development to date, acknowledged that the project can’t guarantee that will always be the case.
“I don’t know that I’m guaranteeing anything,” Heaton said. “Our responsibility has been the planning and the permitting ... I am not the expert on railroads, or petroleum, or any of those things.”
Relatively small amounts of the Uinta Basin’s waxy crude are currently being transported by tanker trucks to one of several rail terminals along the existing Union Pacific railroad in central Utah, then shipped by rail out of state. These shipments began in 2013 using “coil-heated and insulated tank cars,” according to the Utah Geological Survey. More recently, other Uinta Basin producers have shipped waxy crude in non-heated tank cars, allowing their contents to gradually solidify in transit before being reheated at their destination.
If the railway is built, whether or not Uinta Basin tank cars are heated and insulated will be up to the producers, rail operators and refineries that purchase the oil. No law or regulation would tie their hands, and the railway project’s 3,600-page environmental impact statement doesn’t address the issue at all.
“The economics of what happens with this after that is really up to the private side of the entity, and there's a number of different entities involved in all of this, as there is with any industry or business,” Heaton said. “But yeah, we don't have anything that addresses that in any way, shape or form.”
Even in cases where the oil is being shipped in non-insulated tank cars, outdoor temperatures will be a major factor. Heaton said that according to the SCIC’s industry partners, the waxy crude loaded into a tank car can — “depending on ambient temperatures” — cool to below its 110-degree melting point in about five hours.
Communities along the downline route have sought more clarity from railway proponents on a number of issues relating to the waxy crude’s transport, especially when it comes to how long it would take the 30,000 gallons of oil in each tank car to cool to a solid in the summertime heat.
“For us to feel some sort of assurance, just on that specific point ... there ought to be scientific data and understanding of what that is,” Scherr said. “And that is only one of all the environmental risks that we’re concerned about.”
It’s a very convenient thing for them to say it’s going to be solid, but that’s not what the facts show.
– Deeda Seed of the Center for Biological Diversity
In the absence of any detailed answers, railway opponents are deeply skeptical of claims that the oil would quickly solidify.
“It’s a very convenient thing for them to say it’s going to be solid, but that’s not what the facts show,” said Deeda Seed, the Center for Biological Diversity’s senior Utah campaigner.
“It is going to remain liquid for some period of time, it’s not clear when or if it even becomes fully solid again,” she added. “It could very well be the case that this stuff is very liquid all the way through the Colorado River Corridor.”
After passing through the town of Kremmling and tiny, unincorporated Parshall, eastbound trains enter Byers Canyon in the Hot Sulphur State Wildlife Area, described by conservationists with the Colorado Birding Trail as prime nesting habitat for Swainson’s thrush, Wilson’s warbler, and the red-naped sapsucker.
Though no official statistics are kept, railroad enthusiasts identify Byers Canyon as the site of one of the sharpest “mainline” railroad curves in the country.
Like most other high-country canyons, it’s also been the site of multiple train wrecks, including a 22-car derailment in 1982 deemed to have been caused by excessive speeds of nearly 60 miles per hour. Klancke, who’s lived in Grand County for 52 years, remembers the aftermath.
“I saw train cars down a 200-foot embankment into the river,” he said. Two other train accidents have occurred in Byers Canyon since then, including a four-car derailment in 2005 caused by rockfall on the track.
In addition to predicting a spill of up to 30,000 gallons once every five years, the STB’s environmental impact statement evaluated other scenarios, including fires and explosions, that are less likely but still a potential risk.
“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,” regulators said. “A fire that surrounds other cars could, in turn, cause a larger fire.”
Even if the waxy crude had solidified in transit, opponents note, a fire that ruptured one or more tank cars would heat it back up to a liquid state. If spilled and dispersed into the river, it would cool to a solid again — but the railway’s backers and their environmentalist foes have stark disagreements over what the cleanup process would look like from there.
In an op-ed earlier this month in the Deseret News, Heaton and Mark Michel of Drexel Hamilton Infrastructure Partners, the project’s private-equity developer, wrote flatly that waxy crude “does not present an environmental concern if there were a derailment.” In interviews, Heaton has repeatedly likened a spill of waxy crude to a spill of candles.
“It is like if you dropped a box of birthday candles in the kitchen sink,” he told Deseret News. “You just pick them up.”
Ted Zukoski, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, ridiculed that comparison.
“It’s just like picking up candles, if candles had warning labels on them that say they may cause organ failure and cancer, like the hazardous materials sheets for the two types of waxy crude they have in the Basin do,” Zukoski said. “It’s scary stuff.”
To date, reported spills of Utah’s waxy crude have largely been limited to tanker-truck crashes that released relatively small amounts of oil. But even those incidents complicate railway proponents’ characterization of the oil as easy to clean up.
In 2018, a truck hauling heated waxy crude from the Uinta Basin overturned on a bridge over the Price River near Carbonville, Utah, spilling roughly 4,000 gallons. Although fewer than 1,000 gallons were estimated to have spilled into the river itself, the crude oil “formed quarter-size to fist-sized waxy globules scattered along (a) three-mile stretch of river from the crash site,” Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality reported. A series of flash floods in the days after the crash knocked out containment booms and sent the oil even farther downstream, with “significant contamination” ending five miles from the crash, the DEQ said.
A train accident on the Colorado River could spill far more oil — a single rail tank car has a capacity of 30,000 gallons — into a river that runs much higher and faster. Data from the U.S. Geological Survey shows that flash flooding in the week after the 2018 truck crash pushed the Price River’s flow to a high of 82.8 cubic feet per second. The median flow rate of the Colorado River near Gore Canyon is more than 20 times higher; at the east end of Glenwood Canyon, the median rate is nearly 75 times higher.
“Even if (the waxy crude) is some form of a solid, the river doesn't care,” said Godes. “The river — it breaks granite boulders apart. It's going to be able to break this down, break it apart and threaten the water supply for 40 million Americans.”
Exactly what impacts a major spill of hydrocarbons could have on the Colorado River is a question of vital importance to many of the communities that rely on it — but it’s another issue that the Surface Transportation Board’s environmental impact statement didn’t address at all.
In their downline analysis, STB regulators focused narrowly on the increased traffic and accident rates on the existing Union Pacific route. The majority of the potential environmental impacts their report examined — including water contamination, wildfire ignition, habitat degradation and much more — were only assessed along the 88 miles of new railroad proposed in Utah, excluding the hundreds of miles of existing track in Colorado that the vast majority of the oil-train traffic would travel.
That lack of analysis lies at the heart of the lawsuit that Eagle County filed against the STB last year, arguing that the board’s approval of the railway in December 2021 violated federal laws like the National Environmental Policy Act.
“The Board arbitrarily omitted the Union Pacific Line from its analysis of the Railway’s impacts to water resources, biological resources, historic and cultural resources, and land use and recreation,” the county’s attorneys wrote in a brief earlier this year. “It failed to provide any reasonable basis for analyzing the Railway’s operations on the proposed line but not on the Union Pacific Line.”
In their environmental review, STB regulators wrote dryly that oil-train accidents “could result in several different outcomes and associated consequences, depending on the force of the collision or derailment, the location of the accident, and the number of train cars involved.” Minor accidents, they said, would be much more likely than major catastrophes.
In the event of a disaster, however unlikely, the report offers little analysis of what might happen next — an omission that has left communities along the downline route scrambling to study past oil spills, assess the potential threat to water quality, develop emergency-response plans and seek assurances that cleanup and recovery costs would be covered. For towns and businesses that are dependent on healthy river ecosystems, such questions, though barely a footnote in the STB’s analysis, could be existential.
“How can you calculate truly the potential damages that could occur if you have a multi-car derailment in Glenwood Canyon?” asked Godes. “That would not only possibly devastate Glenwood’s economy for several years, and compromising drinking (water) and recreation facilities up and down the river — and that's just in the immediate area, let alone the downstream impact to Grand Junction, and the Ute Water (Conservancy) District, and Moab, and even farther down.”
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