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A far-fetched coal-by-rail export proposal stirred outrage in Northern California before fizzling. Was there ever anything to it?

Nearly a year ago, a company newly registered in Wyoming set off alarms and political outrage in Northern California with a filing at a federal rail agency.

The company outlined a plan to restore a long-abandoned rail line running north from Sonoma County for high-volume freight cargo.

Though the filing did not specify the cargo or where it would come from, the few public and reported comments of its chief representative indicated the plan was moving Montana and Wyoming coal for export out of Humboldt Bay.

The proposal immediately ran into a wall of fierce opposition ‒ with federal, state and local lawmakers from San Francisco Bay to Eureka all dead set against it.

The federal agency that entertained the idea, the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, which oversees rail rights of way including the 176 miles of defunct tracks between Willits and Eureka, put the brakes on the project in a procedural ruling earlier this month.

But as the tide goes out on the audacious and costly coal export scheme ‒ a political anathema in climate-concerned Northern California ‒ questions remain about exactly who was behind the North Coast Railroad Co. and whether it ever had the wherewithal to succeed.

“This has been one of the more colorful issues that I have ever worked on in my time in local and state government,“ California Senate Majority Leader Mike McGuire, who rallied opposition against what he dubbed the “toxic coal train“ in Sacramento and along the North Coast.

“The longer this proposal sat, the more stinky it got,“ he said.

On June 10, the Surface Transportation Board rejected the North Coast Railroad Company’s bid. Though represented by a Chicago law firm experienced in federal railroad law, the company missed a filing deadline by a day, and the board subsequently tossed its application for control of the line.

North Coast Railroad Co. has yet to make any effort to appeal that decision, according to the company’s opponents.

The decision by the federal board came the same day three California lawmakers accused the company of submitting a falsified bank statement as part of its application with the federal rail board. The bank statement was meant to satisfy a requirement that entities show proof of their ability to cover cleanup and upgrade costs.

The lawmakers ‒ Sen. Alex Padilla and Reps. Jared Huffman and Mike Thompson ‒ pointed to paperwork showing the balance of the account had dipped as low as $70 in the weeks leading up to a filing in which the company claimed millions of dollars in the bank. The North Coast Railroad Co. has yet to publicly respond to the allegations.

An official with the bank this week cast further doubt on the statement’s validity.

Meanwhile, a Press Democrat review of companies linked to Justin Wight, a former North Carolina resident who served as the North Coast Railroad Co.’s principal spokesperson in California, turned up little evidence of the business experience and financial backing required for a railroad venture that sought to restore heavy freight operations on long-abandoned lines.

Retrofit costs for the track are estimated at $2.3 billion, according to estimates by state officials.

Elected officials who slammed the rail takeover pitched it as a battle against “big coal.” But no sign has emerged of involvement from the nation’s leading coal mining companies.

Instead, The Press Democrat’s review of Wight’s business background turned up what appeared to be misleading marketing, shadowy limited liability companies, and in one case, sanctions from the California Department of Real Estate.

McGuire, a Healdsburg Democrat, has been an especially vocal opponent of the coal train as it would collide with plans he has championed to build the Great Redwood Trail, a 320-mile recreation path from San Francisco Bay to Humboldt Bay. North of Willits, in Mendocino County, the trail will use the same old rail bed the North Coast Railroad Co. wanted for coal shipments.

“This has been an enormous time and resource drain fighting this effort,“ McGuire said in an interview Thursday. “Who would have thought that in 2022 this community would have had to organize and mobilize to fight a coal train?“

Mysterious railroad entity

Wight is the only person besides Robert Wimbish, a Chicago attorney, ever publicly linked to the North Coast Railroad Co. It was registered in August in Wyoming, just 10 days before its first filing with the Surface Transportation Board.

Wyoming is notorious for lax business registration laws. North Coast Railroad Co. was created using registered agents — firms that can register businesses in multiple states and obscure their true ownership.

Its initial federal filing did not disclose any backers or name Wight or any other party. At the time, the company claimed it was “capitalized to the tune of $1.2 billion.”

But on the heels of the company’s most recent filing in June, Huffman and Thompson, who together represent the North Bay and North Coast in the House, and Padilla, California’s junior senator, accused Wight of submitting a falsified bank statement to the Surface Transportation Board.

The statement was a step in the proposed takeover bid where the North Coast Railroad Co. had to demonstrate the financial wherewithal to cover maintenance costs and the price of scrap steel along the line.

To clear that threshold, the company’s lawyers submitted a bank statement from Self Help Federal Credit Union claiming an account balance of $15.7 million. But the poorly redacted statement indicated the fund’s balance hovered on average around $1,000, and had dipped as low as $69.96 in the weeks before Wight claimed the multimillion dollar sum.

An official with the bank has since cast further doubt on the filing.

“The (document) is not a valid statement from Self-Help Credit Union,” bank spokesperson Jenny Shields wrote in a June 21 email to The Press Democrat.

It’s not clear it if the outcry from the three California lawmakers has spurred any law enforcement involvement. Staff members for Huffman and Padilla told The Press Democrat this week they were not aware of any investigations by authorities.

Having rejected the North Coast Railroad Co.’s bid, the Surface Transportation Board is unlikely to investigate the matter, according to agency spokesperson Michael Booth.

The small agency has about 150 staff. “It’s not like we have an investigative arm,” Booth said.

Wight has not responded to emails and voicemails from The Press Democrat over months since the North Coast Railroad Co.’s first filing last year.

On Wednesday, a person who said his name was Adam and that he was Wight’s assistant responded to a reporter’s latest inquiry.

“I am handling (Wight’s) emails and calls currently due to unfortunate circumstances,” the person wrote, using Wight’s email address with TerraNova Strategies, a Wyoming-registered consulting company where he is a principal. “Mr. Wight is currently in the hospital following an accident and candidly it’s not going the best. We remain hopeful for his recovery, and in the meantime, if you could email any questions you may have, I will do my best to get answers to your inquiries.”

No one responded to a follow-up email from The Press Democrat with questions, including a request for the assistant’s last name and phone number.

'Who is financing the coal train?’

Wimbish, the lawyer with Chicago firm Fletcher and Sippel, has not responded to multiple requests for comment on the allegations of fraudulent filing and other questions about the coal export proposal.

For McGuire, Wimbish’s involvement remains a key unanswered question. A former attorney for the Surface Transportation Board, Wimbish is an experienced railroad attorney.

McGuire cast doubt on the idea Wight alone had the resources to pay for high-powered legal representation.

“Someone was paying one of the most respected attorneys (in the field) trying to advance this proposal,” he said. “Who is financing the coal train?”

In late September, Wight told the Eureka-based Lost Coast Outpost that he was in discussions with “dozens and dozens of shippers” about possibilities for the rail line, were his bid for control of it to succeed. He pushed back on reports that his main intention was shipping coal, but also he declined to rule out that cargo.

Later that month, the Salt Lake Tribune uncovered and published an email indicating that in March 2021, Wight spoke with a Utah state official and the leaders of two federally recognized tribal nations — Montana’s coal-rich Crow Tribe and the Wiyot Tribe whose reservation is on the shore of Humboldt Bay. Earlier reporting in the Lost Coast Outpost indicated Wight had held a meeting in Eureka with a coal-friendly Utah state senator.

But amid intensifying public scrutiny, officials with both the Wiyot Tribe and Utah Inland Port Authority distanced themselves from the project. Both entities said it hadn’t received serious consideration. The Crow Tribe did not respond to requests for comment.

Other ventures under scrutiny

Wight’s other business ventures also raise questions.

Wight’s bank statement showed financial transactions with two other limited liability companies. One is TerraNova Strategies, and the other is Twin Hawkes Development Corporation. Email addresses and phone numbers for the companies posted online also tie them to Wight.

Wight signed a November 2020 report with the Wyoming Secretary of State for TerraNova. Public information about that company’s work is difficult to come by. Its website states the firm operates in business development, government relations and commercial finance. The company also offered to help clients apply for federal COVID-19 small business loans during the onset of the pandemic.

The website lists offices as far afield as Belgium and New Zealand. No one responded to a Press Democrat request for comment submitted via an online form.

In 2016, the California Department of Real Estate filed a “Desist and Refrain” order against Wight and TerraNova Strategies for operating without a real estate license. Wight and his firm “solicited and negotiated a loan transaction” using a California property as collateral, according to Rick Lopes, a spokesperson for the agency. The type and size of the loan, and the type of property, were not immediately available, Lopes said.

Wight did not respond to a question about the desist and refrain order or about the nature and experience of Twin Hawkes and TerraNova.

Online, Twin Hawkes presents itself as “a development corporation focused entirely on historic renovation and redevelopment.” The contact number is a phone number associated with Wight. On a webpage titled “Leadership,” the company lists a number of companies as “strategic partners.”

The first company named is architectural firm Page & Turnbull, which has offices around California. The company has no ties to Twin Hawkes LLC and has written Wight asking for their name to be removed from the website, Page & Turnbull marketing director David Roccosolva told The Press Democrat.

Roccosolva learned his company was listed as Twin Hawkes’ strategic partner after an architect in North Carolina emailed him a warning. It was best to stay away from Twin Hawkes, the architect said.

“I don’t know how we got on (Twin Hawkes’ website),” Roccosolva said, “but I know we never did work with them.”

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88.

Andrew Graham

Business enterprise and investigations, The Press Democrat 

I dig into businesses, utility companies and nonprofits to learn how their actions, or inactions, impact the lives of North Bay residents. I’m looking to dive deep into public utilities, labor struggles and real estate deals. I try to approach my work with the journalism axioms of giving voice to the voiceless, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable in mind.

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