At issue: federal railroad law vs. state environmental law

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Two environmental groups are appealing a May court decision that said the North Coast Railroad Authority is exempt from state environmental law in its effort to restore freight rail service from Napa and Sonoma counties northward to Willits.

Lawyers for Friends of the Eel River and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics say that Marin County Judge Roy O. Chernus was wrong to conclude that federal railroad law trumps state law in this case, despite the fact that the NCRA had accepted millions of dollars in state funding to restore the long-defunct rail line from Napa to Humboldt County.

"We think that was a bad interpretation of the law," said Patty Clary, executive director for Californians for Alternatives to Toxics. "As Californians, we're not interested in having the state spend money without having some conditions attached to how it is spent."

The two groups had argued that a 2011 environmental impact report prepared by NCRA, but paid for by the state, failed to consider a number of aspects of restoring the freight rail line, including the possibility of disturbing toxic chemicals in the rail bed. They also argued that the report should have covered the full 316-mile rail line all the way to Humboldt Bay, rather than the southern 142 miles from Napa to Willits, which partially reopened in 2011, more than a decade after it was closed because of safety problems.

Rail officials have said they do not expect to reopen the line north of Willits in the foreseeable future because of the expense and environmental sensitivity of areas such as the Eel River Canyon. The line now runs only as far as Windsor, but they hope to extend as far as Willits in stages as funding becomes available.

NCRA has long argued that federal law trumps state law and that the environmental impact report was conducted merely as an advisory report to set the operational terms of the contract with Northwest Pacific Railroad, the company that runs the trains on the NCRA rails.

NCRA attorney Christopher Neary expressed surprise at the appeal, which was filed Monday and delivered to NCRA the next day. He said he had not heard from the environmental groups about a possible appeal.

It could take a year or more for the 1st District Court of Appeal in San Francisco to consider the matter.

You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@

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