The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia on Dec. 4 denied a petition to rehear challenges to its August 2023 decision that halted the Uinta Basin Railway project in Utah, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.
The 88-mile line (see map above) would be the first major freight railroad built in the U.S. in the past 30 years; it would primarily haul shale-extracted crude oil. Behind the project is Utah’s Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, which filed the Court petition and is an “independent political subdivision” of the state. It had sought the Surface Transportation Board’s (STB) approval for the line’s construction and operation, which was granted in December 2021.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on Aug. 18, 2023, struck down the STB approval. It granted in part the consolidated petitions of Eagle County, Colo., and the Center for Biological Diversity that challenged the Uinta Basin Railway project, and vacated the STB’s final exemption order as “arbitrary and capricious.” It also vacated in part STB’s Environmental Impact Statement outlining the various impacts associated with the railway’s construction and operation, and the Biological Opinion (BiOp) concerning the railway’s potential impacts on endangered species and critical habitats. The matter was remanded to STB for further proceedings.
The Court, in its August decision, wrote that “the deficiencies here are significant. We have found numerous NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] violations arising from the EIS, including the failures to: (1) quantify reasonably foreseeable upstream and downstream impacts on vegetation and special-status species of increased drilling in the Uinta Basin and increased oil-train traffic along the Union Pacific Line, as well as the effects of oil refining on environmental justice [of] communities [in] the Gulf Coast; (2) take a hard look at wildfire risk as well as impacts on water resources downline; and (3) explain the lack of available information on local accident risk in accordance with 40 C.F.R. § 1502.22(b) (2020). The EIS is further called into question since the BiOp failed to assess impacts on the Colorado River fishes downline.”
The Court also wrote that “[t]he poor environmental review alone renders arbitrary the Board’s consideration of the relevant Rail Policies and the final order’s exemption of the Railway.” STB “also failed to conduct a reasoned application of the appropriate Rail Policies as required under the ICCT Act [Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act of 1995],” according to the Court. It said STB “failed to weigh the Project’s uncertain financial viability and the full potential for environmental harm against the transportation benefits it identified.”
According to The Salt Lake Tribune, the STB must now “fix the issues raised in court. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must also vacate its previous biological opinion on the project.”
In a statement to the newspaper, Wendy Park, a senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said: “I’m grateful the court stuck to its well-reasoned decision voiding the Uinta Basin Railway’s approvals. Federal officials now have to go back to the drawing board. …”
The Seven County Infrastructure Coalition “did not immediately respond to The Tribune’s request for comment” on the Court’s Dec. 4 denial of its petition, according to the newspaper. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the STB did not join in that petition; both agencies and the Department of Justice in separate November 2023 filings told the Court that its August ruling did “not merit a rehearing ‘en banc.’”
STB spokesman Michael Booth told The Salt Lake Tribune that the Board does not comment on “pending litigation.”