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North Coast lawmakers gearing up to battle coal export proposal tied to Humboldt

North Coast lawmakers and environmental groups are bracing for a battle to block a secretive plan to restore an abandoned stretch of North Coast railroad for high-volume coal shipments from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana to Humboldt Bay for overseas export.

A plan state Sen. Mike McGuire is calling the “toxic coal train” would allow transport of coal shipped through Utah and Nevada, west through Sacramento and Vallejo and through the North Bay along the SMART train tracks and beyond to the port at Eureka.

“We’re going to have to do our work and kill this thing,” Congressman Jared Huffman said Friday.

Lawmakers say the proposal, first reported by the Lost Coast Outpost, not only would run tens of millions of tons of coal along unstable ground past critical waterways, but would also extend reliance on coal as a global energy source, and contribute to greenhouse gas production at a time when fossil fuels should be abandoned.

“The train tracks are literally just feet away from the drinking water source for nearly one million Californians — the Russian and Eel River,” said McGuire, D-Healdsburg.

The plan also could mean lengthy waits at critical thoroughfares, as car after car of coal went past on track that cleaves Sonoma County cities. Coal trains in the Powder River Basin can be more than 100 rail cars long.

SMART Chairman David Rabbitt, the supervisor for south Sonoma County, said he had been briefed about the project by general manager Farhad Mansourian and didn’t believe the agency could turn down freight business that directors didn’t like, even though the agency owns shipping rights to the line.

The coal shipping proposal came to light within the past few weeks through filings with the federal Surface Transportation Board. The North Coast Railroad Authority, the state agency which oversees the line, is seeking the board’s permission to abandon failed, unused rail segments between Willits and several points in Humboldt County. The railroad was closed by federal safety officials after destructive rainstorms in 1998 washed out hillsides and collapsed tunnels. The tracks have only degraded since, NCRA Executive Director Mitch Stogner said.

Restoration of the line would cost an estimated $2.4 billion or more, Stogner said. The goal instead is to convert that right of way for completion of the 320-mile Great Redwood Trail connecting San Francisco and Humboldt Bay for use by hikers, cyclists and equestrians. McGuire is among those spearheading the project.

But federal law prioritizes the use of rail lines for railroad use. In response to the NCRA petition, an entity called the North Coast Railroad Company LLC filed an offer to rehabilitate the track for its own use. The company, formed Aug. 6, was registered to a Sheridan, Wyoming, address 10 days before its filing with the Surface Transportation Board. The board, which has exclusive jurisdiction over railroad construction, mergers and abandonments, has since denied the NCRA request to abandon the railway.

In a formal “Offer of Financial Assistance,” attorneys for the limited-liability corporation said the company was “capitalized to the tune of $1.2 billion,” with “thoroughly-developed plans to restore the Line and deploy it in the transportation of high-volume shipments by rail over the Line.”

McGuire and Huffman said their understanding that the freight would be coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana — the largest source of coal in the United States — came through conversations about a visit to the region by Utah State Sen. David Hinkins and others who McGuire said were “secretly courting local elected officials, as well as local business representatives,” in Humboldt County.

Humboldt County Supervisor Rex Bohn told the Lost Coast Outpost he met with Hinkins and other interested parties about six months ago. Bohn did not return two phone calls Friday, and Hinkins was unavailable for comment.

Chicago-based attorney Robert Wimbish, who signed the North Coast Railroad Company filings, did not respond to an email seeking comment. His firm’s website describes him as an expert in railroad transportation law.

Coal interests in the Powder River Basin have for decades eyed Asian markets as an export destination for coal. The desire to ship to China and other Asian nations that continue to build coal-fired power plants has heightened as domestic markets have plummeted.

Coal in 2020 accounted for 19% of the nation’s electricity generation. As recently as 2007 it accounted for more than 50%.

In the past decade, Powder River Basin boosters — from coal companies to the Crow Indian Tribe to the state of Wyoming itself — have pushed at least eight coal port proposals in California, Washington and Oregon, including Oakland. None of those proposals succeeded. Most failed after local and state authorities raised environmental or other objections to the ports.

It’s still unclear who is behind the North Coast Railroad Company, though Huffman said reliable sources have told him partners include the Crow Tribe, whose 2.2-million-acre reservation has vast coal deposits. The Wyoming address used by the company is associated with 250 business filings, according to a response to its STB filing by Charles Montagne, a lawyer for the North Coast Railroad Authority. Wyoming allows businesses to register easily, with few disclosures, making it a haven for shell companies, according to reporting by Reuters and others

Both Huffman and McGuire described the secrecy of the effort as part of what makes it so disturbing.

“We know this North Coast Rail line was built upon some of the most unstable soils on earth,” McGuire said, adding that a portion of derailed freight train still lies in the middle of the Eel River, where it landed after a section of Eel River canyon slid out.

“Now this corporation is going to propose tens of millions of tons of coal to thunder through Novato, to thunder through Petaluma, Santa Rosa, Larkfield, Windsor, Cloverdale, Healdsburg, Ukiah, Willits — tens of thousands of tons of coal coming through the hearts of our communities. It’s offensive, and we’re going to fight this with every bone in our bodies,” he said.

Caryl Hart, the former Sonoma County parks chief, is a member of the NCRA board and the Great Redwood Trail Steering Committee, as well as the California Coastal Commission, which oversees coastal development. She said the cash proponents claim to have and case law that has repeatedly allowed the Surface Transportation Board to override local and state government preference make the scheme “a very serious threat, even though it seems preposterous.”

But she said shipping out of Humboldt Bay would still be subject to environmental review and approval from local elected officials and the Coastal Commission, none of whom would be likely to embrace it. The harbor also would require substantial upgrades “because of the volume, the depth, the material — every aspect of it,” she said. “These harbors are not dredged to withstand this kind of cargo.”

Humboldt Bay Harbor Commissioner Richard Marks, who also is an appointee to the North Coast Railroad Authority, said he “would guarantee it would fail” to win local approval.

“I don’t see it being receptive at all in this county,” Marks said.

“It is,” said David Keller, Bay Area Director of the Friends of the Eel River, “absolutely in opposition of all that the North Coast community has been trying to do, in terms of global warming, and it’s certainly anathema to particularly the Eel River and all we’ve been doing to try to restore and protect it.”

Even Doug Bosco, a former North Coast congressman and co-owner of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Co., which until recently owned the shipping rights for the stretch of track at issue, deemed the new proposal improbable.

Long at the forefront of a decades’ long push to revive the railroad, he has entertained a variety of different proposals but never one from coal interests, he said.

“To take coal and ship all the way up there I would say is very far-fetched,” said Bosco, an investor in Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat. “Unfortunately that railroad, at least in terms of freight, has seen its day. It would cost way too much to repair it.”

Representatives of the mysterious North Coast Railroad Company have not contacted Bosco, he said, which surprised him given his longtime ownership interest in the rail line. “You have to think, ‘Who are these people?’ ” he said.

Huffman, D-San Rafael, said the Surface Transportation Board “and the whole world” needed to understand that “anyone who tries to do this will be walking into a buzz saw.”

“I’ve been gratified by all of the opposition that has just gone to DEFCON 4 instantly,”” he said, “but one of those opponents is going to be the Graton (Rancheria) Tribe, because that area along Highway 37 is a special place for them, an ancestral land, and I know they are mobilized to put their resources into the fight.”

Graton Rancheria Chairman Greg Sarris was not available for comment Friday afternoon.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Editor’s note: This story has been changed to correct the NCRA’s estimated cost of restoring the North Coast Railroad line at issue.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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