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The environmental analysis of Utah oil railroad is inadequate, federal judge rules

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Utah's new Uinta Basin Railway would send thousands of tank cars full of crude oil on a route beside the Colorado River. After a federal ruling, the project is on pause, so opponents are celebrating for now. But Aspen Public Radio's Halle Zander reports railroad backers have incentive to keep trying.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUSHING)

HALLE ZANDER, BYLINE: On a recent bluebird morning in Western Colorado, Gregory Cowan and some friends are rigging boats and paddleboards for a trip through Glenwood Canyon.

GREGORY COWAN: It's my favorite place. It's where I can go and just shut everything off. And it's just me and whoever's in the raft with me and the river.

ZANDER: What was supposed to be a protest flotilla against the Uinta Basin Railway has turned into a celebration after an environmental analysis for the railroad was found inadequate by a federal judge. The railroad would connect to existing tracks that run beside the river here, and it would send up to 185,000 oil tank cars a year down the tracks. Heather Montross-Cowan is Gregory's wife. Together, they own a rafting business that takes tourists on the Colorado down this canyon, and they worry about derailments and oil spills.

HEATHER MONTROSS-COWAN: We would shut us down. When your season's three months long, to lose half all is a huge impact. You can't recover from that.

ZANDER: So the boaters today are psyched, but proponents of the railroad are not.

GREGORY MILES: It would probably be an understatement to say that I was disappointed.

ZANDER: Gregory Miles is a county commissioner in Utah and co-chair of a coalition of local Utah governments behind the Uinta Basin Railway.

MILES: The Uinta Basin - we produce a lot of oil. We produce a lot of cattle. We feed America both in fuel and in food.

ZANDER: Right now a lot of oil from the basin goes to refineries in Salt Lake City. But drillers say they could produce a lot more if they could ship it by rail through the Rockies to the Gulf Coast. And Miles is frustrated that the judge says the proposed railroad needs to address oil spill risks from tank cars after they leave the new railroad and travel on to existing tracks beside the Colorado River.

MILES: I think that we're being held to a higher standard. Toilet paper that's manufactured in the Northwest - we don't look in Georgia septic tanks to see what turpentine has done.

ZANDER: But despite the setback, Miles says they'll do whatever is necessary to move the project along. One reason the judge ruled the railroad's environmental analysis insufficient is because it failed to adequately address climate change impacts. It says if all the oil they plan on sending to Gulf refineries is burned, it could make up a little under 1% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. That worries rafters on the Colorado. Heather Montross-Cowan.

MONTROSS-COWAN: I've seen the impacts of changing weather patterns, more extremes. What has once been a very predictable stretch of river is not.

ZANDER: They've seen massive wildfires and mudslides that shut down access to the river in this canyon for weeks at a time and suspended their business multiple summers in a row. And climate change makes disastrous wildfires and mudslides more likely.

MONTROSS-COWAN: I don't think if you had asked me six years ago if I was an environmentalist, I don't think I would have said that as part of my identity. And now we're standing here, and it's a very different place to be.

ZANDER: She and her husband know that the rail project isn't dead yet, but today they and about 30 rafting friends are happy it's at least stopped for now.

MONTROSS-COWAN: Oil and water don't mix.

COWAN: But they do bring us together.

MONTROSS-COWAN: Yeah.

COWAN: Look at this. Yeah. It's pretty cool.

ZANDER: The coalition of local governments in Utah pushing the railroad will begin working on an updated environmental analysis. They have not yet offered a timeline for when that will be ready.

For NPR News, I'm Halle Zander.

(SOUNDBITE OF RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS SONG, "UNDER THE BRIDGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Halle Zander, Aspen Public Radio