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.