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Environmentalists claim state money spent on Uinta Basin Railway is being misused

Oil pad near Vernal, Utah, June 2017.
Mike Duniway
USGS, public domain
Oil pad near Vernal, Utah, June 2017.

A Utah District judge heard arguments Wednesday related to the Uinta Basin Railway, in which environmental groups allege state funds are being misused.

Nearly $28 million has been spent on plans for a railroad that could increase oil production in the northeast corner of Utah. The money comes from the Utah Permanent Community Impact Fund, which oversees the distribution of oil and mining royalties to communities affected by mineral extraction.

Wendy Park, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the project doesn’t provide any benefits to residents of the region, and it’s just making environmental concerns worse.

“The whole point … is to provide local governments that constantly have to deal with drilling impacts in their communities a way to deal with those impacts by providing funds to them for road repairs, schools, libraries and health clinics,” she said. “Instead, this money is actually being used to exacerbate drilling impacts.”

“This project is really about propping up the oil industry,” Park added.

In 2020, a state audit of the Community Impact Board found a number of approved applications would benefit private industries. A key finding was there’s no policy that makes sure projects “adequately alleviate mineral extraction impact.” The Uinta Basin Railway was a point of concern in the audit even though it was given the go-ahead by a federal transportation agency last December.

At the hearing, representatives from the CIB and the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, which is backing the project, argued that they followed the necessary steps to award money for the project. For the state to recoup the money on the project, they said it needs to go forward.

Daniel Widdison, a state assistant attorney general, said the CIB’s mandate to “alleviate the impacts” of extraction can take a variety of forms. For this project, the board is looking at helping economic impacts for the “isolated” mining communities in the basin.

“There are always environmental impacts when you make a decision about expanding mineral extraction, building roads, building infrastructure, things like that,” he said. “That doesn't necessarily mean that the environmental impacts aren't worth considering, but they might not be the impacts that are the most important.”

The Legislature has the ability to narrow the focus of how the funds are used, Widdison said, and can alleviate environmental impacts if it so chooses.

During the hearing, Park said the groups are aware of around $2 million of the original grant money that has not been used. They’re asking those working on the railroad to give it back to the state. It’s not the full amount that went to the project, but Park said it could still go toward helping local communities.

The judge is expected to release a written judgment within the next 60 days.

Lexi is KUER's Southwest Bureau reporter
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