The End of the Line: A Spur Track to Nowhere

By Caroline Griffith

Here we go again. A Sept. 2 article in Lost Coast Outpost left many north coast residents wondering if they had been magically transported back to yesteryear: a shadowy LLC based in Wyoming is petitioning the Surface Transportation Board (STB) to gain control of and rebuild disused rail lines along the Eel River and ship coal – yes, coal – out of Humboldt Bay. Not only have the rail lines in question, particularly along Eel River Canyon, fallen into severe disrepair since 1996 when flooding and landslides finally closed the line, but coal? Seriously?

Over the last decade there have been numerous attempts of varying seriousness to revive rail service on the north coast. Unlike previous efforts that failed due to being undercapitalized, this one appears to have enough funding to make it a more serious threat. The corporation, called the North Coast Railroad Company, LLC claimed in a filing with the STB to be “capitalized to the tune of $1.2 billion” a number which it claims is sufficient to bring the rails up to operating standard. That claim is disputed by many who have observed the state of the tracks, such as the North Coast Rail Authority (NCRA) who conservatively estimates it would cost at least $2.4 billion to rehabilitate the track. In a statement, NCRA Executive Director Mitch Stogner said, “This is absurd. Over the last 30 years, we have seen numerous ill-conceived plans from people who say they want to run a railroad here on the North Coast, and not once has it worked out. They usually disappear as quickly as they arrive, and I’m guessing this proposal is no different… We suggest this LLC stop the secrecy and do their homework.”

The NCRA, the entity who assumed ownership of the line in 1992, believes the tracks are beyond repair and has initiated the process of railbanking, which is when rail lines proposed for abandonment can be preserved for future rail use through interim conversion to trail use. In this case, the lines have been proposed to be railbanked in favor of the Great Redwood Trail, a 320-mile, multi-use rail-to-trail project running through some of the wildest and most scenic landscapes in the country and connecting San Francisco and Humboldt Bays. Legislation converting the NCRA to the Great Redwood Trail Agency, and giving it authorization to conduct master planning and design, construct, operate and maintain a trail, SB 69, has passed the California Senate and Assembly and, as of press time, was on the governor’s desk waiting for approval. 

Unfortunately, federal rail law gives precedence to rails over trails, so the fate of the Great Redwood Trail remains to be seen, but both State Senator Mike McGuire and North Coast Congressman Jared Huffman have come out strongly against this proposed coal train. On Sept. 21, McGuire introduced SB 307 which would prohibit state money from being used to rehabilitate the tracks north of Willits or being used to build out a coal storage facility in Humboldt Bay.

Coal has catastrophic environmental impacts, from the way that it is mined, to the dust that is dispersed as it is transported in open train cars, to the mercury and carbon dioxide that are released when it combusts. The rail line in question runs along geologically unstable cliffs above the Eel and Russian Rivers, from Novato through Santa Rosa, Healdsburg, Ukiah, Scotia, Rio Dell, Fortuna and Eureka, then along Humboldt Bay where it would be loaded on ships to be exported to China. There are countless opportunities along the way for coal or coal dust to contaminate ecologically and economically important waterways as it is transported in open-top, uncovered rail cars. This isn’t even including the potential for derailment, which has happened in the past along Eel River Canyon. 

Disused rail lines in disrepair along the Eel River. The North Coast Rail Authority believes the tracks are beyond repair and has initiated the process of railbanking, which is when rail lines proposed for abandonment can be preserved for future rail use through interim conversion to trail use. Photo courtesy of Friends of the Eel River.

Despite 1st District Humboldt County Supervisor Rex Bohn’s assertion that the LLC mentioned shipping the coal in “clean coal cars” that are completely covered, there is little evidence that such cars are used anywhere in the country to ship coal. According to Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway, each car on a coal train releases 500 to 2,000 pounds of coal dust, which contains arsenic, lead, mercury, chromium, nickel, selenium, and other toxic heavy metals. So, over the course of its journey a typical 125-car coal train could release up to 250,000 pounds of coal per trip. The Eel River is not only home to chinook salmon and steelhead, which are both listed as Threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, and Northern California Summer Steelhead which was recently listed as Endangered under the California Endangered Species Act, but it is also a source of drinking water for communities along the proposed route. Humboldt Bay is currently one of the cleanest bays on the west coast, which is why we have a thriving oyster and oyster seed industry. Burning coal and coal dust contaminate fish with mercury at levels that can harm human health, particularly children. There is a lot at stake if this project were to move forward, both locally and globally.

Activists along the west coast have done a good job of shutting down or phasing out coal export facilities and plans, from Oakland to northern Washington, which may be why this company has resorted to Humboldt Bay. The good news is that there are many lessons to be learned from our friends and allies who have worked on these efforts. The NEC will be working in coalition with other groups throughout the north coast to protect our air, water and communities from coal and to make sure we all have the opportunity to see the Great Redwood Trail to fruition. Stay tuned and visit to stay up to date.

Cartoon by Joel Mielke