PD Editorial: Getting beyond the coal train smoke

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

The smoke is starting to clear from a bizarre scheme to ship coal up the North Coast on a long-defunct rail line for export.

A likely destination is China, which relies heavily on coal-fired power plants and has recently reported a severe depletion of its coal supply.

This is a crazy, costly, hazardous plan. In this age of climate change, when reducing greenhouse gas emissions is crucial, it isn’t a stretch to say that creating new supply lines for coal-fired power plants anywhere is bad for the entire planet.

So, it wasn’t particularly surprising that those behind the venture tried to stay in the shadows. Or that a little exposure to sunlight sent a few participants scurrying for cover.

An internal memo from a Utah port agency identified participants in a March 16 telephone meeting about possible coal shipments from tribal land in southeastern Montana to the Port of Humboldt Bay in Eureka. Participants included representatives of the Utah Inland Port Authority, the Utah Mining Association, the Crow Nation from Montana and the Wiyot Tribe from Humboldt County.

The memo says topics of discussion included the potential for obtaining a $1 billion federal loan to rehabilitate railroad tracks on the North Coast.

That’s another preposterous aspect of this misadventure.

Trains haven’t run between Willits and Eureka since 1998, when winter storms destroyed much of the rail bed. It wasn’t the first time. Over the previous 10 years, the 110-mile route through the Eel River Canyon was closed time and again by mudslides that washed out the tracks.

In 2003, staring at estimated repair costs of up to $1 billion, plus untold additional millions for future maintenance, the state effectively abandoned the route.

“Horses graze on the high grass next to idle maintenance equipment,” wrote a Los Angeles Times reporter who visited what was left of the rail line. “Madrones and oak saplings sprout between railroad ties. An abandoned freight car disappears in the black grit riverbank. Nature is rapidly reclaiming the savage Eel River Canyon from the Northwestern Pacific Railroad.”

In 2018, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation to use the rail right of way for the Great Redwood Trail, a planned route connecting San Francisco and Humboldt bays.

The federal government could theoretically thwart the state’s plans for a trail. But restoring the rails to carry coal to Humboldt Bay would cost at least $2.4 billion, according to the North Coast Railroad Authority.

That is double the capital claimed by the North Coast Railroad Company LLC, which filed a petition with federal regulators to rehabilitate the track for its own use. The paperwork offered few details about the company, and its lawyers didn’t respond to reporters.

The port agency memo, first obtained by the Salt Lake City Tribune, doesn’t mention the railroad company. But it briefly outlines a plan to ship coal controlled by Crow tribe by rail to a shipping terminal at Humboldt Bay owned by the Wiyot tribe.

After the memo became public, Wiyot leaders downplayed their involvement. So did the Utah port agency, and Humboldt port officials are now calling the concept unrealistic.

But the petition hasn’t been withdrawn. Rep. Jared Huffman, state Sen. Mike McGuire and other North Coast elected officials are organizing opposition. Meanwhile, reporters from Salt Lake City to Santa Rosa to Eureka are still digging for details about the North Coast Railroad Company and this antediluvian plan to ship dirty coal around the glob.

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Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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