Memo shows involvement of Utah agency and 2 tribes in North Coast coal export proposal
A Utah state official and the leaders of two federally recognized tribal nations in March discussed shipping Rocky Mountain coal by rail along the Northern California coast and exporting it out of Humboldt Bay, according to a newly revealed document that sheds additional light on parties involved in the controversial proposal.
The internal memo from a Utah port agency, first published last week by the Salt Lake Tribune, indicates coal industry players in Montana and Utah were at least initially involved in the proposal.
Amid widespread public outrage over the prospect of coal trains chugging through Northern California cities and towns and alongside rivers that are key water sources for the region, both the Utah agency and the Humboldt Bay-based Wiyot Tribe have since distanced themselves from the proposal.
And local opposition to the project appears increasingly difficult for coal advocates to surmount. This week, officials with the Humboldt Bay Harbor District, which regulates port facilities in the bay, said that body’s elected board was likely to pass its own resolution opposing coal shipments.
The district’s director, Larry Oetke, didn’t consider the coal shipping proposal realistic, he said Monday.
“We have no intention of spending any time looking at the feasibility at all,” he said. “I don’t want to give it any credence.”
The coal-shipping scheme surfaced publicly only in August, when a mysterious company filed paperwork before the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, a federal agency that oversees freight rail shipping. The newly formed North Coast Railroad Company objected to a state-backed effort to convert long defunct rail line north of Willits into a recreation trail, claiming it had $1.2 billion in financing to restore abandoned rail segments that run through the region, including the remote, slide-prone Eel River Canyon.
North Coast representatives opposed to the plan at the time said the company hoped to ship coal from either Utah or from Powder River Basin coal mines in Montana and Wyoming. No further details have surfaced about the North Coast Railroad Company’s plans and neither the company or other entities that appear involved, including the Crow Nation, a Montana-based tribe with large coal reserves, have been willing to discuss the proposal publicly.
But the March 16 email obtained by the Salt Lake Tribune and published in a Sept. 25 story indicates coal industry players in both regions were involved in the proposal, at least in March.
The email was written Chris Mitton, listed at the time as a strategic projects manager with the Utah Inland Port Authority, a government entity dedicated to boosting economic development in that state. In it, he discussed a phone call that day with a representative from the Utah Mining Association and a business consultant, Justin Wight, who isn’t further identified. Also on the call was Conrad Steward, the energy director for the Crow Nation, and Michelle Vassel, a tribal administrator for the Wiyot Tribe based on the southern shore of Humboldt Bay.
The March call marked the extent of the Utah agency’s involvement, a spokesperson for the agency said, adding that the port authority is no longer participating in any coal shipping proposal through Northern California.
“The port authority was invited to a meeting to introduce the idea,” Jill Flygare, the agency’s chief operating officer, said in a statement. “After fact checking it was determined it was not a viable port project and we’ve had no participation since.”
In the email, Mitton writes that the parties discussed advancing a project that had the support of both tribes. A coal port would likely face “some, but not overwhelming opposition,” locally, Mitton wrote in an assessment he attributed to Vassel.
The email refers to an export terminal in the bay that would be tribally owned or have “small, non-tribal minority owners.”
“The Wiyot Nation is ‘fully committed to this project,’” Mitton wrote in the email. It was unclear who he was quoting. Mitton no longer works for the agency, according to the spokesperson.
Nevertheless, Wiyot tribal officials have since made statements that indicate the tribe is opposed to any project and is not involved.
Wiyot Nation officials told Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, that they opposed the project, Huffman told The Press Democrat on Monday.
In a Sept. 2 story by the Lost Coast Outpost that broke the news of the North Coast Railroad Company’s filing, Vassel said the tribe hadn’t been offered a coal shipping scheme.
“We have not received a proposal or accepted a proposal related to coal,” she wrote in an emailed statement to that newspaper.