Proposed Craig train route coming off the rails
A coalition of Utah counties trying to bring a rail route into Moffat County outside Craig have asked the federal government to pull the route from consideration after the Bureau of Land Management in Colorado expressed their opposition.
The Craig route is one of three beginning in Utah primarily servicing the oil and gas sector.
In a letter dated Aug. 26 from the United States Department of the Interior’s BLM in Colorado to the federal Surface Transportation Board, BLM says the rail would impact its wildlife management plans — including sage-grouse, Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, raptors, and black-footed ferret management decisions.
Big game migrations were also mentioned in BLM’s letter because the route “crosses important winter habitat for big game species, including pronghorn, mule deer and elk. These species could be displaced from suitable habitat during the critical winter period, which has the potential to increase winter mortality. Train operation could have impacts to big game migration corridors through direct mortality of animals or altering movement patterns.”
BLM said the route doesn’t use existing right-of-way corridors and will affect three different sensitive species of plants — specifically “penstemon yampaensis, cryptantha caespitosa, and near a historical occurrence of oxytropis besseyi var. obnapiformis.”
BLM’s letter also mentions visual and noise disruptions requiring land use amendments near Dinosaur National Monument as well as cultural resources “especially on buried prehistoric sites in the area south and southwest of Maybell.”
The financial toll of running into archeologic and prehistoric sites is something area oil and gas companies have apparently already suffered.
“The likelihood that the proposed railroad will encounter many buried eligible prehistoric sites, particularly in the vicinity of Maybell, is a factor that should be considered when deciding between alternatives,” BLM said in its letter to the STB. “The gas transportation companies had little ability to avoid the dune field and had to fund salvage excavations intended to mitigate the adverse effect of pipeline construction on eligible sites. As with the pipeline projects, any buried sites encountered during railway construction would need to be mitigated through salvage excavation. Such excavations are costly and the federal government would need to ensure that the multi-county association promoting the Craig Alignment Alternative would have the financial resources necessary to mitigate impacts to eligible sites via salvage excavation.”
As a result of these and other factors, BLM requested the Craig alternative be eliminated from further analysis
On Sept. 4, a few days after BLM sent its letter in opposition to the Craig route, a legal representative with the Seven-County Infrastructure Coalition, who originally proposed the route, also requested the route be removed from consideration.
The coalition said the Craig route “lacks competitive access to existing Class I railways. In order to provide cost-effective rail transportation to shippers, the route must provide competitive access to existing Class I railways.”
The coalition pointed out two key portions of the route are privately owned by Blue Mountain Energy and Tri-State, so agreements would have to be reached.
“If the Coalition is unable to reach an agreement providing trackage rights over either segment, it would be forced to construct parallel trackage,” the coalition said in its letter. “With respect to the Axial Spur, parallel trackage may not be feasible for environmental reasons. Moreover, assuming construction of parallel trackage is even possible, it would increase construction costs by an additional $100-$500 million. These additional construction costs significantly reduce the economic feasibility of the proposed Craig route and further prevent this route from meeting the project’s purpose and need.”
The coalition highlighted the Craig route’s proposed connection to Union Pacific’s line in Moffat County whose coal shipments in the past few years have dwindled substantially.
“The Craig route connects to the UP Craig Subdivision branch line, which is over 90 miles in length and is currently maintained by UP. In part because it passes through extremely rugged canyons, the Craig Subdivision line has high operating and maintenance costs. Originally developed in the early 1900s, this line is highly dependent on coal production. Lately, however, decreased coal production has led to a declining traffic base on the Craig Subdivision branch line. Unit coal trains operated on the Craig Subdivision have declined from a high of as many as 30 per week as recently as 2005, to as few as 5 per week at present,” the coalition said. “At this rate, the Uinta Basin Railway would be the primary source of traffic on the Craig Subdivision line and, as a result, could be forced to either (1) purchase the line or (2) incur substantial costs to maintain the line. Given the length of the line and the historically high maintenance costs, either of these possibilities could prevent the Craig route from meeting the project’s purpose and need.”
The coalition wants the Craig route removed from consideration.
“Based on information developed during the public scoping process and information collected by the coalition, it has become apparent that the Craig route is not economically feasible and therefore will not meet the project’s purpose and need,” the coalition said. “Accordingly, the coalition requests OEA to consider removal of this route alternative from further analysis in its NEPA review process.”
Josh Wayland, an environmental protection specialist with the Surface Transportation Board who is working on the coalition’s project, said Thursday his agency had received the BLM and coalition letters regarding the proposed Craig route and is evaluating those and many other comments before making a final decision.
“We are currently going through each of those comments, every single one,” Wayland said. “That will inform the decision we make, not only regarding alternatives, but also all of the environmental issues that have to be considered in the environmental impact statement. Those letters, along with all the other comments we’ve received are available on the surface transportation board’s website at http://www.stb.gov. You can also access them through the project-specific website which is http://www.uintahbasinrailwayeis.com.”
Wayland said the public will have another opportunity for public comment in the coming weeks and months after the Surface Transportation Board publishes its draft environmental impact statement.
“I would encourage everyone to look for our announcement on the availability on the final scope of study,” Wayland said. “That will be the next step for us in our environmental review. We’ll outline what will happen after that. We’ll make some very important decisions about what will be analyzed in this EIS.”
Tammy Champo, a spokesperson for Uintah Basin Railway, said the BLM and coalition letters are part of the process.
“Nothing is official,” Champo said of the Surface Transportation Board’s decision on the Craig route. “They’re still going through their scoping report.”
But Champo admitted the BLM and coalition letters make bringing the route to Craig more difficult.
“It just makes it a little more challenging,” she said.