Alicia Hamann, Friends of the Eel River Executive Director
By now, news of the impending threat of coal trains coming to town has spread far and wide. Municipalities from Sonoma to Humboldt have passed resolutions opposing the storage, transportation, and/or export of coal through their communities. Senator Mike McGuire introduced legislation, SB 307, to help stop the proposal by prohibiting state funding to improve or operate rail service on the defunct North Coast rail. Congressman Jared Huffman has engaged with the Department of Transportation and urged it to honor its commitment to climate protection by not granting any federal funds to this absurd proposal. And of course, local organizations are mobilizing. A coalition of groups which includes Friends of the Eel River, Humboldt Baykeeper, Humboldt Trails Council, Coalition for Responsible Transportation Priorities, Environmental Protection Information Center, Sierra Club, and the Northcoast Environmental Center are working together to oppose reviving the defunct rail line through a new coalition called No Coal In Humboldt.
Modeled after successful anti-coal campaigns like No Coal In Oakland, No Coal In Richmond, and Power Past Coal, this coalition has already accomplished some great work. No Coal In Humboldt was the driving force behind getting local resolutions passed, and is now working with a variety of municipalities on developing ordinances. The coalition benefits from involvement of groups like Friends of the Eel River, which has decades of experience navigating the complex world of federal railroad law, as well as the Humboldt Trails Council and Coalition for Responsible Transportation Priorities, both of which understand that the value of trails goes far beyond having a scenic location for a walk.
We are now waiting for two decisions from the Surface Transportation Board (STB), an independent federal entity which primarily regulates freight rail. One of the two questions before the STB is whether or not to allow Offers of Financial Assistance which could interrupt the NCRA’s railbanking application and destroy the Great Redwood Trail. Offers of Financial Assistance, or OFAs, are essentially the process by which an entity would take ownership of the rail line. If the STB decides to allow OFAs, we are likely to see two submitted for this line – one from the shady LLC you’ve all read about in the news, the North Coast Railroad Company, and another from the Mendocino Railway, aka Skunk Train. And trail lovers take note – if a private company is able to take ownership of the right-of-way it would both destroy the future Great Redwood Trail and threaten existing segments of trail like the Humboldt Bay Trail.
While it’s starting to seem hopeful that the North Coast Railroad Company’s scheme may not be successful, the Skunk Train could be the real stink bomb that we all need to be wary of. Mendocino Railway has the credentials, experience, and at least the appearance of funding that could lead the STB to take them seriously. And a highly credible source revealed that Mendocino Railway was previously negotiating with coal industry representatives. But the City of Fort Bragg has beef with the Skunk Train, and is pushing back hard on its claim to be a “public utility” and is trying to ensure it no longer enjoys the privileges of preemption from local regulations that this status provides.
No Coal In Humboldt is watching the STB docket closely and preparing our legal team to respond to any potential OFAs. We are also continuing to educate our community about why this is a serious threat – primarily because the STB favors freight over any other use for the right-of-way, and why bringing rail back to the region means bringing coal to the region – because coal is the only commodity that could finance such an expensive endeavor.
Train cars transporting coal release at least 500 pounds of coal dust for every 100 miles traveled. That’s per train car! That means that if 100 train cars travel the roughly 300 miles of rail from the Bay Area to Humboldt, we should expect to see 150,000 pounds of coal dust released every day. Coal dust contains particulate matter (PM) 2.5 which can contribute to premature death, asthma, prenatal complications and cardiac disease. It has also been linked to increased mortality from Covid-19. Even just a short exposure to PM 2.5 is associated with serious health impacts. Coal dust also includes toxic heavy metals like arsenic, lead, and mercury.
And we must be very clear: Reviving rail infrastructure to the region would definitely mean bringing coal to our region. The economics are simple – such an expensive endeavor can only be funded by high-value and high-volume freight. Coal is the only commodity which meets that requirement. Trains could carry other freight, but only after bringing coal to Humboldt Bay.
If you want to be involved, please visit nocoalhumboldt.org. There you can sign up for our email alerts, read our fact sheets, or sign your organization on as a supporting member of the coalition.
Alicia Hamann is the Executive Director for Friends of the Eel River who have been working for over 25 years to recover the Wild and Scenic Eel River, its fisheries, and communities.