North Coast Rail Legal Settlement to Protect Health of Eel and Russian River Watersheds, Advance Great Redwood Trail Project

Northwest Pacific Rail alongside the mainstem Eel River. Credit Scott Greacen/Friends of the Eel River
Northwest Pacific Rail alongside the mainstem Eel River. Photo: Scott Greacen/Friends of the Eel River

The North Coast Rail Authority (NCRA) agreed in late April to a legal settlement with non-profit organizations Friends of the Eel River and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics that ended an eight-year legal battle that included issues brought before both the California and U.S. Supreme Courts. The NCRA Board of Directors voted unanimously on April 10 to accept the settlement agreement that was then approved by the Marin County Superior Court on April 22.

The settlement that brought this protracted legal battle to a close will protect the fragile Eel River Canyon, conserve native fish habitat and bring economic benefits to five North Coast counties. Pursuant to the settlement, NCRA withdrew its 2011 environmental impact report for its rail line repair project, which Friends of the Eel River and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics had challenged as inadequate. The settlement opens the way for the creation of the Great Redwood Trail, which was recently approved by the California State Legislature and which will allow for public use and enjoyment of the rail corridor.

“After nearly a decade of conflict, all parties have finally agreed to work together to build a positive and healthy future for our North Coast communities,” said Stephanie Tidwell, Executive Director of Friends of the Eel River. “This settlement is an important step towards ending the ongoing harm to native fish and contamination of northern California’s water and soils caused by the rail line in the sensitive Eel River canyon. We also now have a phenomenal opportunity to build the Great Redwood Trail, which will provide sustainable recreation and transportation opportunities not only in the remote and rugged Eel River Canyon but also for rural communities along the 300-mile-long route.”

The NCRA, a state agency, partnered with a private enterprise, Northwestern Pacific Railroad Company, to make repairs and begin re-operating a defunct freight rail line from Novato into Humboldt County in 2006. This rail line, dormant since 1998, passes through the environmentally sensitive and geologically unstable Eel River Canyon. Prior to its closure, rail operators routinely dumped large amounts of rock and debris that fell from canyon walls into the Eel River, harming water quality and blocking fish passage for the river’s native salmon and steelhead.

Toxic materials such as dioxin, creosotes and heavy lubricants have contaminated the soil and wood infrastructure along the defunct rail line and polluted the waters of the Eel and Russian Rivers and many creeks of the north coast. The line continues to degrade today, and the threat of ongoing contamination continues. One challenge still ahead is to provide a plan and funding to remediate the erosion and contamination.

“This settlement ends litigation which was successful in exposing a corrupt agency of the state and preventing it from undertaking environmentally harmful activities on its decrepit rail line where former activities have left a trail of pollution,” said Patty Clary, Californians for Alternative to Toxics. “Looking to the future, we envision a smarter approach to using and protecting the environment of this rail corridor which runs through some of the most spectacular country in the nation.”

The Great Redwood Trail Act, SB 1029, was approved by the state legislature in August of last year to begin an effort to convert the defunct rail line into a recreation trail. This 320-mile hiking, cycling, and horseback riding path could attract tens of thousands of visitors a year to the north coast. Outdoor recreation in California generates more than $90 billion a year. The state legislature is now working to appropriate funds for the Great Redwood Trail. Planning the trail is expected to take two to three years.

Legal Background

NCRA initially prepared an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for its plan to reopen operations of the freight rail project under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). CEQA requires public agencies to disclose a project’s environmental impacts and minimize them to the extent feasible. But after Friends of the Eel River and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics each filed suit in 2011 to remedy the grossly inadequate EIR, NCRA argued that CEQA was preempted by federal law.

The lower courts agreed with NCRA, but in 2017 the California Supreme Court reversed the decision, agreeing with the petitioners. The court ruled that federal laws that govern railroads do not preempt California’s bedrock environmental statute. NCRA petitioned for certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court, which was denied. The California Supreme Court remanded the case to the trial court to hear the merits. The parties agreed to settle before the trial court proceedings concluded.

“This has been a long, hard legal battle,” said Amy Bricker, an attorney with Shute, Mihaly, and Weinberger, the law firm representing Friends of the Eel River. “It’s encouraging to see both sides work together to reach a solution that will benefit the entire
North Coast region.”