Coal Train Update

In the last month, there’s been a flurry of activity from the federal Surface Transportation Board, entities seeking to take the Northwest Pacific Rail right-of-way from the public, and those of us seeking to protect our region from the threat of coal trains and support the Great Redwood Trail. You may have seen the news that the coal train is dead, but this isn’t over until boots hit the Great Redwood Trail!

Here’s a summary of major developments over the last year:

NCRA Applies for Railbanking May 2021
The North Coast Railroad Authority applied to railbank 175 miles of rail line from Willits to just north of Arcata. 

Railbanking Held in Abeyance June 2021
The Surface Transportation Board paused the railbanking process while it decided whether two small segments of the line had in fact been previously abandoned, and whether to proceed with accepting Offers of Financial Assistance (OFAs). The OFA process would allow other rail entities to take the right of way from the public and is exempt from much of the environmental review which is critical to protecting clean air and water.

Initial Filing from Mendocino Railway July 2021
Mendocino Railway first came into the picture with this filing in July 2021 in which they support the abeyance. They also describe their intent to bring an OFA for “all or a portion of the line” and clearly state that “if an OFA is brought for all or a portion of the rail line there will be no trails”.

NCRA Requests Exemption from OFAs July 2021
In part due to the threats presented in Mendocino Railway’s filing, the NCRA made a motion for exemption from the OFA process. 

Initial Filing from North Coast Railroad Company LLC August 2021
This filing from the mysterious North Coast Railroad Company LLC is what prompted us to switch from simply supporting the Great Redwood Trail to protecting our communities from a potential coal train. The NCRCo LLC filing expressed their intent to eventually submit an OFA, and is filled with what we now know to be lies about being “capitalized to the tune of $1.2 billion” and to have “thoroughly developed plans”.

Extensive Media Coverage Helped Illuminate Coal Train Concerns Sept – Oct 2021
Click here to see a comprehensive list of the excellent news coverage by reporters from California to Utah. 

STB Issues Three Rulings May 17 – 23, 2022
After months of waiting the Surface Transportation Board suddenly issued  several decisions:
1) Decided that two segments in question have previously been abandoned, which complicates planning for the Annie and Mary Trail;

2) Opened the window for notices of intent to file OFAs; and
3) Published corrected draft environmental assessment.

Notices of Intent to Submit OFAs May 31 – June 1, 2022
Three notices of intent to submit OFAs were filed with the STB: one from Mendocino Railway for a 13-mile segment from Willits to Dos Rios; another from “Seeker Enterprises” which did not meet the threshold for financial viability; and a late-filed notice from the North Coast Railroad Company LLC for the entire line.

A strong show of opposition to allowing OFAs was made by members of this coalition, the Great Redwood Trail Agency, and local municipalities. Many of those same entities, as well as Congressman Huffman, Senator McGuire, and other elected officials, also issued statements of support for the Great Redwood Trail Agency’s request to reject OFAs. 

FOER Comments on Draft Environmental Assessment and Support for Motion to Reject Late Notice June 7 – 9, 2022
Between June 7 – 9 FOER and our allies at the Sierra Club filed several sets of comments on the STB’s draft Environmental Assessment (here, here, and here) as well as a letter of support for the Great Redwood Trail Agency’s motion to reject the late-filed notice from NCRC, LLC.

STB Rejects 2 of 3 Notices of OFAs June 10, 2022
The director of the STB rejected the coal train’s late-filed notice, but the company has an option to appeal this decision by June 21. If they are successful, we’ve got a brutal battle ahead. If they do not appeal or their appeal is rejected, we are left to address only the Skunk Train’s interest in running a train through sensitive salmonid habitat along Outlet Creek, bisecting the Great Redwood Trail at the southern end of the Eel River Canyon.