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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.

“I am not sure how the Tribe’s name became part of this discussion but I have had a number of phone calls about it,” she wrote. Vassel did not respond to voicemails and emails requesting comment on Monday and Tuesday.

The Grand Canyon of the Eel is an important acquisition in the protection of the National Wild and Scenic Eel River and the establishment of the Great Redwood Trail. (The Wildlands Conservancy)
The Grand Canyon of the Eel is an important acquisition in the protection of the National Wild and Scenic Eel River and the establishment of the Great Redwood Trail. (The Wildlands Conservancy)

Tribal leaders told Huffman they had participated in “preliminary meetings” about a shipping project that did not specify coal. “I don’t know the details but I do know that as soon as this thing became public they disavowed themselves from it,” Huffman said.

Local governments up and down the proposed route through Marin, Sonoma, Mendocino and Humboldt counties have begun passing resolutions expressing their opposition to coal trains. State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, has introduced a bill to prevent any California tax dollars from going to restoring the rail line or establishing a coal port, while Huffman has sworn to fight the project at the federal level.

In Mitton’s email, he wrote that Wight had spoken to the U.S. Department of Transportation about securing up to $1 billion in loan funding to rebuild the railroad line, which was abandoned through the Eel River Canyon and other northern sections in 1998. Wight could not be reached for comment.

Huffman will seek to block any such federal loan, he said.

“I’m going to be urging them in a full-throated way not to loan that money,” he said of the federal transportation agency. A loan to encourage the mining and burning of thermal coal for electricity would be “completely incongruous with President Biden’s entire agenda,” he said.

The most recent state budget awarded the Humboldt Bay Harbor District $11 million to pursue another $55 million in federal funds to support redeveloping the port. But the goal for those funds is to transform Humboldt Bay into a major base for the development of offshore wind energy — a use of taxpayer dollars more in keeping with California’s climate goals.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported that Wight contacted officials with the harbor district. However, the district’s director, Oetker, told The Press Democrat on Monday that he was unaware of the coal-shipping proposal before it was reported in local media at the beginning of the month.

A majority of the harbor district’s elected five-member board of directors was likely to pass a resolution against coal shipments, Oetker said. Harbor officials were focused on offshore wind energy that’s “clean, green, modern,” Oetker said, “setting the stage for the next 50 years for the types of jobs that we want to see in the area.”

Opposition to the coal shipments from local governments and the distance that groups including the Wiyot Nation and the Utah port agency have now put between themselves and the project should raise even more red flags for federal regulators who must consider the bid, Huffman said. He questioned whether the $1.2 billion in financing the mysterious company claimed was a reference to the $1 billion federal loan Wight had floated during the meeting.

“This is a house of cards,” Huffman said. “It was always a house of cards because those of us in the region know how preposterous it is.”

McGuire, who has been fierce in his condemnation of the “toxic coal train” project, called on the company to be clearer about its intentions. “Come forward and talk directly to the community,” he said in a statement. “Stop lurking in the shadows. Show us your plan.”

Read the March 19 memo

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

Andrew Graham

City of Santa Rosa, The Press Democrat 

As Sonoma County's largest city, Santa Rosa, its policy and politics, crime and its economy affect the lives of North Bay residents both inside city limits and beyond in ways both obvious and unseen. I aim to document those impacts and give voice to city residents.

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