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Local news roundup with the Colorado Sun - 7/12/2022

Every Tuesday, KUNC's Samantha Coetzee speaks with our colleagues over at the Colorado Sun about the local stories they're following.

Today she spoke with editor Larry Ryckman about the Uinta Railroad, Denver Public Schools and potatoes.

Interview Highlights:
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Samantha Coetzee: Talk to me about the Uinta Basin Railroad. The Forest Service recently denied objections to it being built, and environmental groups are pretty worried.

Larry Ryckman: Yeah, this is an interesting one. Reporter Jason Blevins has been following this battle over whether to allow train cars loaded with oil from Utah to connect with the national rail network. Jason says the U.S. Forest Service recently dismissed objections to the proposed new rail line in a section of roadless forest in Utah. That was a final regulatory hurdle for the railroad's backers.

Environmental groups and others are worried that this waxy crude oil, which will be shipped in heated train cars, could pose a threat to the Colorado River and communities along the river corridor here in Colorado. If the railroad is built, it will connect the oil fields of northeast Utah with Union Pacific Railroad track that runs along the river from Grand Junction and 200 miles of Colorado rail line.

Jason says the battle over the rail line is not yet over. Environmental groups could still file a lawsuit objecting to the Forest Service's final approval. And there are some pending lawsuits in Washington and Utah which could stop or slow the project.

Coetzee: Some staff in Denver Public schools are looking for better pay, and others are looking to unionize. Can you talk about what’s been going on there?

Ryckman: Erika Brennan has a story about this labor unrest in many Colorado school districts. She's written many stories about how school districts are facing a shortage of teachers and other workers.

But now, public school paraprofessionals and other support staff members are asking for a salary increase. These workers include bus system, food service workers, campus safety officers, and some that even includes educational sign language interpreters. Some are making less than $16 per hour, which they say isn't enough to even pay their rent and other bills. They're now hoping to make $20 an hour in Denver.

These workers, as you mentioned, can join a union, but their counterparts in other metro districts don't have that choice and are seeking union recognition from their school boards. These attempts to unionize follow a legislative session in which labor organizing became a big issue. Colorado lawmakers pushed through a law that enables county employees in counties with less than 7,500 people to collectively bargain but not strike.

Coetzee: I'm going to apologize in advance for a potato pun, but it looks like there are some tuber trust issues going on right now. Colorado politicians are pretty excited that potato farmers can sell their products in more of Mexico. But the farmers themselves are still a little apprehensive. Can you tell us more about what's been going on there?

Ryckman: Hey, who knew potatoes could be so interesting? Reporter Jennifer Brown recently spent some time in Colorado's San Luis Valley, and she came back with this fascinating story about potato politics. As many of us know and appreciate, Mexican avocados are shipped throughout the United States to serve in salads, guacamole and other dishes. But Mexico makes it pretty tough for U.S. potato farmers to sell their crops south of the border.

For the past 20 years or so, Mexico's allowed U.S. farmers to sell their potatoes only in the first 16 miles south of the border and in Mexico. Potatoes grown there aren't affordable to everyone. In fact, potatoes are considered a vegetable for the middle class and higher. But in May, the Mexican Supreme Court finally cleared the way for more affordable U.S. potatoes to find their way to Mexico. And that has farmers in the San Luis Valley pretty excited but also feeling cautious.

San Luis Valley farmers sell nearly 1.5 billion pounds of fresh potatoes a year. They think they could double that to help feed Mexico, but only if the current rules actually stick. And many of the Colorado farmers have kind of been down this road before, and they're not so sure that's going to happen. It's definitely a story we're going to continue to watch.

As the host of Morning Edition at KUNC, I have the privilege of delivering you the news in two ways — from behind the mic and behind the scenes. In addition to hosting Morning Edition, I’ll report on pressing news of the day and arts and culture on the Front Range.
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