Memo sheds light on North Coast Railroad’s coal export plan

BY ANDREW GRAHAM

A Utah state official and the leaders of two federally recognized tribal nations discussed in March the shipment of Rocky Mountain coal by rail along the northern California coast and its export. from Humboldt Bay, according to a recently revealed document that sheds additional light on the parties involved in the controversial proposal.

An internal Utah port agency memo, first published last week by the Salt Lake Tribune, indicates that coal industry players in Montana and Utah were at least initially involved in the proposal.

Amid widespread public outrage at the prospect of coal trains passing through northern California towns and along rivers that are key water sources for the region, the Utah agency and the Miwot tribe based in Humboldt Bay have since distanced themselves from the proposal.

Local governments up and down the proposed route through Marin, Sonoma, Mendocino and Humboldt counties have begun to pass resolutions expressing their opposition to the coal trains. Representative Jared Huffman and Representative Mike Thompson, whose districts include the area, said on Wednesday that they had urged Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to decline federal funding for such a project.

Governor Gavin Newsom on Thursday signed a bill from State Senator Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, to prevent California taxpayers’ money from going to railroad restoration or the establishment of a coal port.

Also this week, officials from the Humboldt Bay Harbor District, which regulates port facilities in the bay, said its elected council would likely pass its own resolution opposing coal shipments.

District manager Larry Oetke said Monday he did not consider the coal shipment proposal realistic.

“We have no intention of spending time examining the feasibility,” he said. “I don’t want to give him credit.”

The idea of ​​shipping coal only surfaced publicly in August, when a mysterious company filed documents with the US Surface Transportation Board, a federal agency that oversees the transportation of freight by rail. The new North Coast Railroad Co. opposed a state-backed effort to convert the long lost rail line north of Willits into a recreational trail, saying it had $ 1 in funding. , $ 2 billion to restore abandoned rail segments that run through the area, including the remote area, Eel River Canyon, which is prone to slips.

North Coast officials opposed to the plan at the time said the company was hoping to ship coal from Utah or from the Powder River Basin coal mines in Montana and Wyoming. No further details have been provided on the plans of the North Coast Railroad Co. and neither the company nor any other entities that appear to be involved, including the Crow Nation, a Montana-based tribe with large coal reserves, have wanted to publicly discuss the proposal.

But the March 16 email obtained by the Salt Lake Tribune and published in a September 25 article indicates that coal industry players from both regions were involved in the proposal, at least in March.

The email was written by Chris Mitton, listed at the time as a strategic project manager with the Utah Inland Port Authority, a government entity dedicated to fostering economic development in that state. In it, he discussed a phone call that day with a representative of the Utah Mining Association and a business consultant, Justin Wight, who is not further identified. Crow Nation Energy Director Conrad Steward and Wiyot Nation Tribal Administrator Michelle Vassel based on the south shore of Humboldt Bay were also in attendance.

The March call marked the extent of the Utah agency’s involvement, a spokesperson for the agency said, adding that the port authority is no longer involved in any coal haulage proposals. via Northern California.

“The port authority was invited to a meeting to present the idea,” said Jill Flygare, chief operating officer of the agency. “After checking the facts, it was determined that this was not a viable port project and we have had no involvement since.”

In the email, Mitton writes that the parties discussed the progress of a project that had the support of both tribes. A coal port would likely face “some, but not overwhelming, opposition” locally, Mitton wrote in an assessment he attributed to Vassel.

The email refers to an export terminal in the bay that is believed to be tribal-owned or has “small non-tribal minority owners”.

“The Wiyot Nation is ‘fully committed to this project,’” Mitton wrote in the email. We didn’t know who he was citing. Mitton no longer works for the agency, according to the spokesperson.

Nonetheless, Wiyot Tribe officials have since issued statements indicating that the tribe is opposed to any plans and is not involved.

Wiyot Nation officials told Huffman D-San Rafael they oppose the project, the lawmaker told the Democratic press on Monday.

In a September 2 article published by Lost Coast Outpost that broke the news of the North Coast Railroad Co. case, Vassel said the tribe had not received a proposal to ship coal.

“We have not received a proposal or accepted a proposal related to coal,” she wrote in an email to Outpost.

“I’m not sure how the name of the tribe became part of this discussion, but I have received a number of phone calls about it,” she wrote. Vassel did not respond to voicemails and emails seeking comment on Monday and Tuesday.

Tribal leaders told Huffman they had attended “preliminary meetings” about a shipping project that did not specify coal.

“I don’t know the details but I do know that as soon as this thing went public, they backed out of it,” Huffman said.

In Mitton’s email, he wrote that Wight had spoken to the US Department of Transportation about securing a loan of up to $ 1 billion to rebuild the railroad line, which was abandoned across the Eel River Canyon and other northern sections in 1998. Wight could not be reached for comment.

Huffman will seek to block such a federal loan, he said.

A loan to encourage the mining and combustion of thermal coal for electricity would be “completely incongruous with President Biden’s entire agenda,” he said.

The most recent state budget granted the Humboldt Bay Port District $ 11 million to pursue an additional $ 55 million in federal funds to support the port redevelopment. But the goal of those funds is to turn Humboldt Bay into a major base for the development of offshore wind energy – a use of taxpayer dollars more in line with California’s climate goals.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported that Wight had contacted officials in the Port District. However, district director Oetker told The Press Democrat on Monday that he was not aware of the proposed coal shipment until it was reported in local media earlier this month.

A majority of the Port District’s five-member elected board of directors was likely to pass a resolution against the coal shipments, Oetker said. Port officials have focused on offshore wind power which is “clean, green, modern,” Oetker said, “paving the way for the next 50 years for the types of jobs we want to see in the region.” .

Opposition to local government coal shipments and the distance that groups like the Miwot Nation and the Utah Port Agency have now put between them and the project should raise even more red flags for federal regulators who must review the offer, Huffman said. He questioned whether the $ 1.2 billion funding claimed by the mysterious company was a reference to the $ 1 billion federal loan Wight issued at the meeting.

“It’s a house of cards,” Huffman said. “It was always a house of cards because those of us in the area know how absurd that is.”

McGuire, who has been fierce in his condemnation of the “toxic coal train” project, called on the company to be clearer on its intentions.

“Come on and talk directly to the community,” he said. “Stop hiding in the shadows. Show us your plan.

The Independent Journal contributed to this report.

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