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Uinta Basin Railway proponents persist

Amy Hadden Marsh
An oil train heads east on the Union Pacific tracks through New Castle, CO.

The embattled Uinta Basin Railway, a proposed short line that would connect Utah's oil fields to the national rail system, has lost key federal permits over the past seven months. But, proponents are not giving up.

Keith Heaton is the executive director of the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, or SCIC, the public entity behind the proposed Uinta Basin Railway. As its name implies, the SCIC comprises seven eastern Utah counties.

Heaton spoke to the Utah state legislature’s Infrastructure and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee on January 31 to request that taxpayer money from the state’s general fund keep the railroad project rolling.

“To get this project built, it’s been funded by the Community Impact Board, or CIB, a public-private partnership with seven counties serving as the public side of the equation,” Heaton told the committee.

SCIC obtained the permits and did all the planning for the project. However, the railway lost its federal permit in August through a lawsuit, which was filed by Eagle County, Colorado and the Center for Biological Diversity last year to appeal the Federal Surface Transportation Board's 2021 approval of the project.

“They prevailed in what I would call a “liberal Washington Court,” Heaton told the subcommittee.

He explained that losing the Federal permit not only causes problems for the railway project but also for the country as they would need to “look at undetermined downstream and upstream impacts to the environment,” said Heaton. Meaning they would have to do environmental assessments in any refinery in the country where products would be shipped from the Uinta Basin.

The same court in December rejected the SCIC’s request to re-hear the August decision. Then, in January of this year, the US Forest Service dealt another blow to the UBR by withdrawing its permit for the construction of the railroad through a roadless area in Utah's Ashley National Forest. So, the railway is stalled, but Heaton said the SCIC has more options.

“We’re seeking Congressional solutions through our National delegation … we’re also soliciting Supreme Court certiorari because this treads all over the state’s rights and interstate commerce.” Heaton explained.

In a January interview, Ted Zukosky, attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said that it would be a long shot if the SCIC took the case to the US Supreme Court since the SCIC never looked at the environmental impacts of this project.

“The issues in this case are pretty much garden-variety, you know, you need to take a hard look at the impacts, and they didn’t do that,” he said.

“It seems very unlikely that the Supreme Court would take this case.”

Regardless of which direction it chooses, the SCIC still needs the $750,000 to proceed. The Utah Infrastructure and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee should have a decision on the SCIC’s request by early March.

Amy Hadden Marsh’s reporting goes back to 1990 and includes magazine, radio, newspaper and online work. She has previously served as reporter and news director for KDNK Community Radio, earning Edward R. Murrow and Colorado Broadcasters Association awards for her work. She also writes for Aspen Journalism and received a Society of Professional Journalists’ Top of the Rockies award in 2023 for a story on the Uinta Basin Railway. Her photography has also won awards. She holds a Masters in Investigative Journalism from Regis University.