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PD Editorial: Keep coal trains away from the North Coast

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.

A secretive corporation wants to restore the railroad line between Willits and Eureka for freight. Mounting evidence suggests that the freight in question is coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana bound for China and other overseas markets. When a catastrophically bad idea like this comes along, communities must fight it every step of the way.

This dangerous project came to light when the company filed papers to stop North Coast Railroad Authority plans to convert the unused rail right of way to a trail for bikers, hikers and horseback riders. That trail would be part of the 320-mile Great Redwood Trail connecting San Francisco and Humboldt Bay, a far better use than transporting dirty coal.

The mysterious North Coast Rail Company LLC has one crucial bit of federal law on its side. Congress has directed that “preserving continued rail service wherever possible” takes precedence over repurposing old rail lines. So, all things being equal, if a company is willing to foot the bill to restore the line, rail officials might have to comply.

All things aren’t equal, though. The NCRA and local elected officials raise serious questions about the proposal.

The gravest concern is the potential environmental impacts of shipping coal along this route. The rail line has been out of service for two decades in part because the land on which it is built is unstable. It also runs along the Eel and Russian rivers. Those are critical waterways, the source of drinking water for nearly 1 million Californians and home to endangered species. Allowing what state Sen. Mike McGuire calls a “toxic coal train” to rumble along the tracks would jeopardize those irreplaceable natural resources.

America has seen too many fossil-fuel rail disasters to simply trust assurances from those who profit. Nor should California, a state that is focused on fighting climate change, become a conduit for coal that will burn in foreign power plants, emitting greenhouse gases and toxins into the atmosphere.

The company’s lawyers claim that it has plans ready to go and has $1.2 billion on hand. That sounds nice, but they’re just words in a filing. No one knows who the company actually is or its financial status. The company formed only a few days before intervening in the case. An NCRA attorney highlighted the lack of transparency in a response, writing that it “appears to be a hoax or some sort of ruse.”

That might be a bit over the top, but the company does need to provide more information and documentation immediately if it doesn’t want to be dismissed out of hand. NCRA has invited the hidden backers to come clean.

Officials might be able to stop coal from going through the Humboldt Bay port, but that is the final line of defense. Better to stop this dangerous proposal before it even gets to that point.

If the company is legit and pursues its plans, elected officials and the public must fight it at every step. Residents who don’t want dangerous coal trains running through their communities and past their waterways should build the public record of opposition.

You can send letters to the editor to letters@pressdemocrat.com.

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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