Lawsuit over possible freight rail operations along Eel River headed to Supreme Court
A six-year legal dispute, which has wide implications for freight rail on the North Coast and the future of California’s high-speed rail project, is headed for a potentially decisive hearing before the state’s Supreme Court this week.
Friends of the Eel River and another environmental group sued the North Coast Railroad Authority, seeking to force the public agency to study the environmental impacts of running freight along a 316-mile rail line that traverses Sonoma, Mendocino and Humboldt counties and runs through the Eel River canyon.
The central legal question is whether public rail agencies are subject to the state’s bedrock environmental law or operate solely under federal jurisdiction. California’s Supreme Court justices are scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case on Wednesday.
In an unusual twist, opponents of the $64 billion high-speed rail project, including some Central Valley farmers, have joined environmentalists in the Eel River case, contending that rail operators - in their case the state’s high-speed rail authority - are subject to the California Environmental Quality Act, known as CEQA.
A ruling that freight operations are not subject to CEQA is likely to affect development of the state’s high-speed rail line.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority will have a “lot more leeway as to where they want to put the rail line and they won’t necessarily have to mitigate for a lot of impacts they don’t want to mitigate,” said Ethan Elkind, director of the Climate Program at UC Berkeley and author of “Railtown,” a book on the history of the modern Los Angeles Metro Rail system. “Basically, it would speed up future segments of high-speed rail.”
The North Coast Railroad Authority was formed by the state Legislature in 1989 to ensure continued rail service along the Northwestern Pacific rail line.
Friends of the Eel River and Arcata-based Californians for Alternatives to Toxics contend that if the railroad agency seeks to run freight north of Willits, it must do an environmental impact report under CEQA.
“Our position is that if the state owns your railroad, if we own your rail line and if we are paying to build the project, then yeah, we get to say something,” said Scott Greacen, executive director of Friends of the Eel River.
In 2011, NCRA prepared an environmental impact report, at a cost of $3 million in state funds, for a section of rail spanning American Canyon in Napa County to Willits. Twice-weekly freight service currently operates along a 62-mile section of track from Schellville, south of Sonoma, to Windsor.
The environmental groups contend the rail agency should have studied impacts to the entire 316-mile line. The northern stretch running through the Eel River canyon has long been abandoned because of the expense of maintaining the line and operating trains in a region prone to landslides, seismic activity and other natural hazards.
Mitch Stogner, NCRA’s executive director, said last week “there are presently no plans” to rebuild the rail line north of Willits to accommodate freight service. He previously estimated the cost for doing so at $1 billion.
“We have our hands completely full trying to repair the railroad from the interchange in Napa to Willits,” Stogner said.
NCRA maintains that interstate commerce along rail lines is the exclusive purview of the federal government, in particular, the Surface Transportation Board.
The agency made the same argument in a more recent dispute over the transport and storage of tankers filled with liquefied petroleum gasoline in Schellville, south of Sonoma. The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit Authority, which owns that section of track and objected to the presence of hazardous materials, eventually resolved the matter. Among other things, Northwestern Pacific, the railroad operator, agreed to inform SMART of future shipments of gas tankers to the site.
Doug Bosco, a co-owner of Northwestern Pacific, is an investor in Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.
NCRA has argued it completed an environmental impact report for the 142-mile American Canyon to Willits segment without it being necessary to do so, saying it was the result of bad advice from a consultant. The rail agency later sought to undo key portions of the 2011 resolution that finalized preparation of the document, in part to thwart lawsuits.
The agency was sued anyway. The two environmental groups involved in the Eel River case argue that the environmental report not only should have covered the entire rail line, but that the initial document failed to examine a number of important issues, including toxic substances such as lead, dioxin and creosote that might be released by the extensive repair work on the century-old tracks.