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Local railroad wants to ship low level radioactive wastes through Walsenburg

by Edie Flanagin
    On January 4, a Texas commission decided to increase the number of states allowed to use the Waste Control Specialists disposal site located on the New Mexico-Texas border.  This  Texas decision could  have an impact on Huerfano County if Ed Ellis, owner of the San Luis & Rio Grande railroad gets a lucrative contract to haul to Texas low level waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory in NM. 
     Ellis is prepared to show how waste shipments from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) might travel on his railroads to the disposal site. Although contractors will make final decisions on routes and carriers, Ellis points out that another one of the railroad lines that he heads has carried several thousand carloads of non-radioactive dirt from other locations to the  west Texas site.
    Ellis claims that the proposed transfer facility south of Antonito, Colorado, could help expedite the handling of LANL waste to Texas. But it would be a circuitous route requiring at least 660 miles and five transfers to deliver the LANL waste that originates only 300 miles north-west of the disposal site.  Waste from LANL would travel by truck north 100 miles to Antonito, be transferred to rail, and then roll east to Walsenburg. There the waste would be transferred to the Union Pacific line, roll south at some point to Monahans, Texas, be transferred to the New Mexico Rail, and then travel north to Eunice, New Mexico.  That stop is five miles west of the Waste Control Specialists site.
    There are several citizen’s groups in both Colorado and Texas that could stop or delay Ellis’ plans.  For starters, the Conejos County Commissioners voted to deny a special use permit to Energy Solutions, the U.S. Department of Energy contractor working with SLRG, for a transfer facility in Antonito.  Conejos County Clean Water, Inc., a coalition of concerned citizens has fought the Antonito transfer site since 2009.  A public meeting will be held by the Surface Transportation Board in Conejos, Colorado on February 17, at 10 am at  Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish Hall.  The STB is a Federal Agency in Washington DC that resolves disputes between local governments and railroads. The proposed SLRG  route takes over 30 days according to the one set of manifests CCCW Inc. were allowed to see.  Therefore, the trains will be sitting on rail sidings in towns and cities throughout  Southern Colorado.  In Texas, opposition is coming from environmentalists and nuclear activists who have long opposed opening up the 1,338-acre site for permanent storage.  It is likely that a series of court appeals will be needed to settle the differences.
    Matt Abbey, shipping manager for the SLRG, contends that railroads are not subject to local regulations banning  shipments because they are regulated by interstate laws.  Even so, the SLRG has voluntarily stopped shipments of the contaminated Los Alamos soil to Antonito until the STB public hearing.  Of some concern is the condition of the tracks over La Veta Pass; several train cars have derailed there over the past several years.    
    La Veta Pass is the highest point on the SLRG at 9,242 feet above sea level.  It is the highest rail freight line in North America. Abbey said the track is inspected regularly by the employees on the train and inspected on foot quarterly.  The train track is a Category 2 classification and is in good condition.  The primary commodities hauled by the SLRG are grain, minerals, specialty rock products and produce.
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