Stop Uinta Basin Railway Solidarity Action

Stop Uinta Basin Railway Solidarity Action FlyerWild Idaho Rising Tide (WIRT) and climate activists throughout the West are organizing solidarity protests of oil trains and infrastructure, for a day of action against the Uinta Basin Railway (UBR), supporting campaigns against the Utah oil-by-rail scheme and in north Idaho, denouncing completion of BNSF Railway’s second, almost mile-long, rail bridge across the state’s largest, deepest lake: mountainous Lake Pend Oreille.  Utah and Colorado comrades are calling for community-led actions on Saturday, December 10, 2022, to show that concerned citizens object to the devastating UBR project, and to pressure federal lawmakers, state representatives, and local governments to prevent building of the Uinta Basin Railway.  They ask everyone to explore the #StopUintaBasinRailway action toolkit with information about the UBR and action coordination, sign a letter to Agriculture Department Secretary Tom Vilsack, demanding that he revoke the U.S. Forest Service permit for the railway, participate in actions happening in a dozen locations, register to join a remote phone bank on Tuesday, December 13, at 10 am Pacific time, and tell UBR opponents that you are interested in assisting this campaign [1-2].

To involve local communities across the United States in advocating against UBR permits and their potential disasters for climate and environmental justice, Colorado groups held a public, online, action training on November 10 [3].  Organizers with years of experience shared ideas about planning effective actions and helped participants learn about the UBR oil trains that would threaten lives and livelihoods along rail routes from Utah to Oklahoma, Texas, and Louisiana, and around the southern Northwest, Union Pacific Railroad (UP) line across southern Idaho and eastern Oregon to western Washington.

Most of WIRT and allied resistance to behemoth oil and coal train shipments has successfully focused on dozens of BNSF Railway fossil fuels pipeline-on-rails routes from the Great Plains to the West Coast.  We rarely demonstrate against Union Pacific, except while decrying its few weekly, Northwest, tar sands trains and myriad derailments, including the Mosier, Oregon, oil train spill and fire in June 2016.  Based on our experiences of BNSF’s ongoing malfeasance, WIRT encouraged and sent extensive comments on the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) in 2021, opposing the Uinta Basin Railway, and talked about the issue during recent years on our weekly, Climate Justice Forum, radio program [4].  WIRT remains steadfast in our thorough monitoring, reporting, and protesting of daily, BNSF, Bakken crude oil trains across north Idaho, as we gratefully accept dedicated co-workers’ invitations to alert our regional neighbors to the impending dangers and direct action opportunities of Utah oil transport across the Northwest.

Uinta Basin & BNSF Railways Protest

As part of countless demonstrations against the fossil fuel causes of the climate crisis and their insidious pollution, risks, and impacts on north Idaho and Northwest rail line communities, we plan to protest both the proposed Uinta Basin Railway oil trains and tracks and the BNSF Railway expansion of its industrial infrastructure into Lake Pend Oreille and Sandpoint, with three second rail bridges and two miles of doubled main line.  Please dress for warmth and dryness, bring your signs and banners, voices and drums, friends and family, and joy and courage, and join WIRT and inland Northwest activists for the Stop Uinta Basin Railway Solidarity Action at 12 noon on Saturday, December 10, at the Serenity Lee trailhead near the East Superior Street and Highway 95 intersection and/or on the public, pedestrian, and bike path to Dog Beach Park in Sandpoint, Idaho.  WIRT will provide on-site action advice and chants and pizza for appreciated participants after the gathering.  Respond in advance with your questions and suggestions, share this event information and flyer among your associates and contacts, and see previous and upcoming, website- and facebook-posted, WIRT newsletters and alerts, for further updates on these issues.

Uinta Basin Railway Opposition

Proposed by the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition in Utah, the Uinta Basin Railway (UBR) would build 88 miles of new tracks from Myton, through an Ashley National Forest roadless area, to Kyune, to transport crude oil from the Uinta Basin to refineries on the Gulf and West coasts [5].  After construction that could start as early as 2023, Rio Grande Pacific Corporation would manage operations of this “rolling pipeline” that would connect to Union Pacific and existing railways, to cross Utah, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Idaho, and Oregon, before reaching refineries in Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, and Washington.  Before construction, the UBR must receive approvals from the federal Surface Transportation Board, Forest Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Ute Tribe, Utah, and many private landowners.  Although most parties have consented, President Biden and Agriculture Secretary Vilsack can revoke required Forest Service permits.  And the coalition still has not secured the $1.35 billion funding necessary to build the project.

Detrimental to people and the planet, the UBR could increase oil production by 400 percent and exacerbate air pollution in the Uinta Basin, an area already designated as marginal nonattainment for ozone, the main ingredient in human health-threatening smog.  High levels of ozone and other air pollution from Basin drilling spreads into northwestern Colorado and beyond.  Burning UBR oil would significantly worsen the climate crisis, by releasing up to 53 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, more than from the nation’s three largest coal-fired power plants combined.  This oil would undermine carbon emissions reduction goals and counteract greenhouse gas decreases from offshore wind energy in less than a year and a half.

The Utah railway would initiate transport of up to 350,000 barrels of crude oil across the U.S. every day: five new, additional, daily, oil trains jeopardizing trackside communities with catastrophic fires and explosions, and risking poisonous oil spills, irrevocable watershed damages, and reduced stream flows in affected waterways.  For instance, with each degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) of climate warming, worsened by Uinta Basin oil emissions, the average flow of the Colorado River drops by 9.3 percent and could decrease by one-third of current levels within a generation.

Increased oil drilling and down-track refining induced by the Uinta Basin Railway would inflict more toxic loads and environmental injustice on communities of color living near Gulf Coast refineries, who already suffer disproportionate impacts from heavy industrial and petroleum processing plants.  Over 85 percent of UBR crude oil would provide feed stock for refineries in Houston and Port Arthur, Texas, or in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley.”  The additional UBR burden of air pollution and its health effects on these fence-line residents would only deepen U.S. dependence on global fossil fuels vulnerable to market price fluctuations and on domestic oil and gas that devastates other resources.  And the oil-by-rail project would delay real solutions and rapid transitions toward clean, renewable energy sources.

BNSF Railway Resistance

The second largest consumer of carcinogenic, climate-wrecking, diesel fuel in the world, BNSF Railway, hauls all of the coal and 90 percent of the oil, plus tar sands, petroleum coke, and ethanol, across the Northwest from the Great Plains, with trains that burn over 110 gallons of diesel per mile.  Since 2019, the Class I railroad has destructively built three second rail bridges through the tiny, former railroad, now recreation town of Sandpoint: over Bridge Street and the Sand Creek outlet to Lake Pend Oreille and almost one mile across Idaho’s largest, deepest lake, the bedrock of the local tourism economy.  As the $100 million, Sandpoint Junction Connector project received all of its permits and Big Green groups turned their backs on the invasion in 2019, Wild Idaho Rising Tide (WIRT) litigated state permit approval, hosted several frontline protests, and has since thoroughly monitored and documented construction abuses.  Meanwhile, BNSF has trained first responders for hazardous spills that are mostly uncontainable, bought off food banks, emergency services, and others with grant donations, and propagandized through endless media ads that the north Idaho economy somehow needs BNSF and its coal dust- and diesel fume-spewing, lake-shaking, allegedly climate-friendly 60 daily trains.

In October 2022, a regional newspaper interview of WIRT, covering rarely heard, rural, and oppositional perspectives, and industry news journal articles warned WIRT activists of possible November opening of the controversial, second, lake, railroad bridge [6].  After a difficult six days of travel to stage GTN Xpress gas pipeline expansion demonstrations in three cities and two states, and to also witness and document destructive, rerouted, Highway 95 construction south of Moscow, Idaho, a WIRT organizer returned to Sandpoint in an early winter blizzard on November 7, on an Amtrak train late enough to photograph in daylight new track laid on the second, Lake Pend Oreille, railroad bridge, but not on the Sand Creek and Bridge Street rail bridges [7].  Soon after deboarding, an oil train moved in the opposite, westbound direction over the windy, snowy lake, welcoming WIRT back to the north Idaho, fossil fuels frontline occupied for seven years since December 2015.

A news story drawn from conversations with activists and industry was published on the same bitterly gusty day and included more references to concerns expressed by residents and environmental groups resisting BNSF bridges expansion than what appeared later in local media [8-10].  During a federal agency review of the proposal, opponents asked…

for an environmental impact statement to more closely analyze the project, arguing that the U.S. Coast Guard’s environmental assessment was insufficient.  Nearly 2,700 people submitted comments to the Coast Guard during a public comment period in 2019.

…The potential for derailments is an ongoing source of concern, given several recent examples nearby.  On New Year’s Day 2020, a rock slide derailed several locomotives into the Kootenai River near Bonners Ferry, leaking diesel fuel.  Another BNSF train carrying corn derailed near Cocolalla Lake south of Sandpoint in 2017.  A few months later, 30 coal cars of a Montana Rail Link train derailed near the Idaho border in northwest Montana, spilling several thousand tons of coal near or into the Clark Fork River.

A spill into the lake would be disastrous, said Helen Yost, organizer of the activist group Wild Idaho Rising Tide, which has closely tracked the project and monitors train traffic in the region.  “We’re concerned about oil trains possibly wrecking, exploding, or spilling oil into the lake,” she said.  “There are all kinds of other hazardous materials hauled over that lake as well.” [8]

On Sunday, November 20, BNSF Railway opened its second, new bridge across Lake Pend Oreille to train traffic, while local media outlets printed promotional photos and pieces with its corrupt messages and fake displays of Thanksgiving generosity and gratitude for community “patience and support” of its industrial infrastructure invasion facilitating its fossil fuels pipeline-on-rails [11, 12].  BNSF and its out-of-state builder Ames Construction gave the Bonner Community Food Bank a $25,000 railroad grant and $5,000 gift for Thanksgiving meals that volunteers began distributing on Monday, November 14.  Both companies and even an Idaho governor’s representative helped pass out the dinners and posed for photos with their pay-off donations.  This holiday celebration re-enacted the same colonizer, Thanksgiving takeover of Native lives, lands, and history narratives as the original fabricated feast, while BNSF expects food recipients, emergency responders, and area residents to overlook its centuries of shady deals and abuses of local air, water, inhabitants, and even its own employees [13, 14].  WIRT hopes that railroad workers strike against not only industry and investment oppressors of rail employees and trackside communities, but also against purported citizen representatives in federal government, who predictably side with the corporations continuing their centuries-long, militarized pillage of Turtle Island.  A railroad strike would reveal BNSF’s lies that north Idaho is dependent on its toxic, pass-through, coal and grain exports, Bakken-to-West Coast oil, and distantly shipped, foreign-made, consumer goods.

Two days later, on November 22, a swarm of industry cheerleader articles announced completion and use of the second, lake, rail bridge near Sandpoint, based only on a press release from railroad officials [15-22].  Local media recognized ongoing resistance to BNSF’s fathomless greed and false glory with only one sentence: “Opponents maintain it will increase the likelihood of hazardous material spills and derailments, in addition to exacerbating global climate change through added fossil fuel consumption” [15].  However, BNSF has not concluded its insufficiently environmentally reviewed project, as it closed the existing, century-plus, lake span, while crews repair and improve it.  Both bridges may open for more dangerous train traffic in mid-2023.  The company and its supporters continue to assert that the new bridge will supposedly decrease train congestion and reduce vehicle waits at railroad crossings throughout the county, while moving current and future freight traffic more efficiently, and thus facilitating global commerce.  But the railroad has not yet alleviated the single-track bottleneck near the convergence of the BNSF and former Montana Rail Link lines, which still persists without doubled tracks next to the historic, active, Sandpoint, passenger train station and in other project locations.

Despite distractive, community support showboated by BNSF, the additional trains that it wants to impose on an otherwise beautiful watershed will inevitably increase road-rail con-jest-ion, ungated crossing collisions, and night train noise and honks, all requiring more “patience and support” than BNSF has inflicted on the region with its five-plus years of ugly, obstructive site preparation and infrastructure construction.  Three second rail bridges and doubled tracks would accommodate longer, more derailment-vulnerable trains and riskier, bi-directional rail traffic.  Many derailments toss 75-foot-long train cars perpendicular to tracks, which over Lake Pend Oreille, lie only 50 parallel feet apart.  The expansion project would allow additional, carcinogenic, diesel locomotive fumes, further accumulation of coal dust and other railroad pollution in lake drinking water and the critical habitat of threatened bull trout, and possible derailments, leaks, explosions, and fires of fossil fuels and other hazardous materials trains driven by exhausted, understaffed crews dozens of times every day through this regional rail line funnel.  With original bridge buttressing efforts, Ames Construction may continue its three years of lake bottom sediment disturbance, with pile driving for never-environmentally-reviewed, constantly moved, temporary, construction barges that precariously balance half-million-pound cranes and other dangerous equipment.  All of these activities degrade and damage natural amenities and thus undermine the local recreation and tourism economy.

Amid other intensive, fossil fuels resistance work, WIRT plans to soon compile and complete a long-promised report about BNSF’s construction damages and environmental and socioeconomic harms that the Sandpoint area community has experienced since 2017, expanding with evidence and illustrating with photos this information previously posted on social media and offered to the press [23, 24].  We intend to further describe some of the past, ongoing, and anticipated impacts of BNSF’s construction and operation of its industrial corridor in Idaho communities, where businesses, organizations, and individuals work to protect the natural waters and lands that generously bestow the basis of our rural tourism, recreation, and arts economy.

[1] Join Us for the #StopUintaBasinRailway Day of Action on December 10! 2022 Utah Clean Infrastructure Coalition

[2] Stop Uinta Basin Railway Resources and Links, 2022 Stop the Uinta Basin Railway

[3] #StopUintaBasinRailway Day of Action Training, October 25, 2022 Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center and 350 Colorado

[4] WIRT Comments on Uinta Basin Railway Draft EIS, February 12, 2021 Wild Idaho Rising Tide

[5] Uinta Basin Railway: What It Is, Why It Matters, What You Can Do About It, 2022 Stop the Uinta Basin Railway

[6] BNSF’s New Sandpoint, Idaho, Bridge Nears Opening, October 10, 2022 Trains Magazine

[7] BNSF Bridges Sites 2022: November 7 Second Lake Bridge Tracks, December 5, 2022 Wild Idaho Rising Tide

[8] Getting There: Second Rail Bridge over Lake Pend Oreille Nearly Finished, November 7, 2022 Spokesman-Review

[9] A $100 Million Bridge to Disaster! November 8, 2022 Wild Idaho Rising Tide

[10] Second BNSF Bridge over Lake in Idaho Almost Complete, November 8, 2022 Railway Track and Structures

[11] Grant, Donations Fund Thanksgiving Dinners, November 20, 2022 Bonner County Daily Bee

[12] BNSF Buys-Off Sandpoint Again! November 20, 2022 Wild Idaho Rising Tide

[13] Preparing for the Future: First Responders Boom Deployment Training, November 17, 2022 Bonners Ferry Herald

[14] Railway Vote Benefits One of the Least Deserving Industries, December 2, 2022, Institute for Policy Studies

[15] Sandpoint Junction Connector Opens to Rail Traffic, November 22, 2022 Bonner County Daily Bee

[16] The three second BNSF rail bridges and doubled tracks…, November 22, 2022 Helen Yost

[17] BNSF’s New Sandpoint Bridge Opens for Business, November 21, 2022 Railway Age

[18] BNSF’s New Sandpoint Bridge Opens for Business, November 21, 2022 TrainBoard

[19] BNSF’s New Sandpoint Bridge Opens for Business, November 21, 2022 Railway Track and Structures

[20] BNSF Opens New Bridge at Sandpoint, Idaho, November 22, 2022 Trains Magazine

[21] BNSF Trains Start Using New Sandpoint Connector Bridge, November 22, 2022 Progressive Railroading

[22] Rail Roundup: Norfolk Southern Seeks Short Line Acquisition; BNSF Opens Bridge, November 22, 2022 FreightWaves

[23] Completed BNSF Lake Rail Bridge Construction Damages, December 5, 2022 Wild Idaho Rising Tide

[24] All Albums: BNSF Bridges Sites…, Fall 2019 to Winter 2022 Wild Idaho Rising Tide

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