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Coastal Commission objects to Skunk's plans for loan funds

A train car derailed off the track, with a young tree growing up between the car and the track.
David Anderson, Great Redwood Trail Agency Principal Engineer.

Verified Statement Of David Anderson, Great Redwood Trail Agency Principal Engineer, P. 6 Of An Exhibit Filed With The Surface Transportation Board By GRTA Attorney Charles Montange On October 19, 2022.
A long-ago derailed train car off the track at Outlet Creek at mile marker 151.8, part of what Mendocino Railway tried unsuccessfully to purchase.

The California Coastal Commission is swinging hard on a federal declaration that the Mendocino Railway’s plans to rebuild a collapsed tunnel and rehabilitate the line between Willits and Fort Bragg are exempt from environmental review. At a hearing on Thursday, March 14, the Commission will discuss a letter it plans to convey to the US Department of Transportation, objecting strongly to a process it calls “highly unusual (and) not provided for under the regulations” that govern the management of coastal zones.

In January, Mendocino Railway and its parent company, Sierra Northern Railway, got a $31.4 million Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) loan from the Department of Transportation, “to expand and rehabilitate rail infrastructure in the Central Valley and Mendocino County.” DoT expects this will “reduce congestion and air pollution on local roads and highways;” and “greatly enhance existing freight service.” In a document called a categorical exemption worksheet filed with the Federal Railroad Administration, Mendocino Railway declares that, “the railroad’s freight and passenger offerings have historically been the economic engine for the region;” and that repairing the tunnel will “help sustain and flourish economic growth.” The worksheet adds that, “Logs, aggregates, and municipal solid waste are expected to move over the MR’s rail line. Companies such as North Coast Brewing and FloBeds have expressed an interest to MR in using the line for common carrier freight service.”

However, two years ago, when Mendocino Railway wanted to buy thirteen miles of track north of Willits, consultant Marie Jones found that in order for the train to compete with trucks to haul freight, it would have to charge $211 per railcar. That would be impossible to recoup, given the estimated $22.5 million price tag to rehabilitate that section of line. Jones concluded that, “There is no space within the market for non-competitive transportation pricing.”

The Coastal Commission complains that it has not had proper time or notice to review the current project. It includes installing electric and communication lines along 40 miles of track between Fort Bragg and Willits, repairs to 27 bridges, and the removal of 32,000 railroad ties that are infused with a cocktail of toxic chemicals. The railway says it plans to spend about $21.5 million on the work. It says the railway consulted a US Fish and Wildlife database to determine that its proposal would not endanger any listed species.

However, the categorical exemption worksheet does not mention the California Endangered Species Act, which lists three species of fish in Pudding Creek and Noyo River, which runs alongside the track for about thirty miles.

The Commission says its objections are based on the project’s “reasonably foreseeable coastal effects,” which include pollution from the Skunk Train’s historical equipment, train derailments, and the lack of relevant best management practices for removing and disposing of the railroad ties. Its letter notes that there are roughly four train derailments per day in the United States, and that Mendocino Railway, which has 381 curves on its 40-mile track, had two derailments in 2015. That’s the year of the most recent and long-lasting collapse of the tunnel, which was also unusable in 1976, 2005 and 2013. The letter states that if a train went off the tracks and into Noyo River or Pudding Creek, “An accident of this nature would negatively affect water quality and aquatic life at the site and downstream.”

Fort Bragg resident Jade Tippett went further, writing in a letter to the Coastal Commission that he believes the railway’s project endangers the city’s drinking water. The railroad ties contain an estimated 7.5 tons of arsenic and four tons of copper, and Tippett believes that the combination of removing them with a backhoe (as the railway proposes); “the siltation from ground disturbance and the expected use of herbicides for vegetation control will inevitably migrate or wash into the Noyo River.” That’s where Fort Bragg gets more than half of its drinking water.

Fort Bragg Councilmember Lindy Peters reported to the council on Monday that he will attend the Coastal Commission meeting in Sacramento and present a letter stating the city’s concerns with the project’s potential impacts on its water supply.

In his own letter to the Commission, Torgny Nilsson, attorney for Sierra Northern Railway, insists that Mendocino Railway is “a federally regulated rail carrier with existing freight rail operations,” and is therefore not subject to the Coastal Commission’s authority. The project, he wrote, will take place entirely within the railway’s right of way and will “facilitate continued freight operations which predate enactment of the Coastal Act and will occur approximately 2,000 feet from the coast.”

But the railway’s status as a public utility that’s not subject to local authority is far from being settled — as is its ability to carry freight.

During an eminent domain trial last year, when Mendocino Railway tried to force Willits property owner John Meyer to give up his land, Robert Pinoli, the president and CEO of the company testified that the railway hauled 120 cars full of steel and aggregate for a streambed restoration project. But in her decision, now-retired Judge Jenine Nadel wrote that he provided no evidence to support those claims, adding that, “The intention to provide services in the future is not sufficient to establish the railway as a public utility.” And she admitted into evidence a letter from the California Public Utilities Commission, saying the railroad is not a public utility. In 2006, the Railroad Retirement Board granted a request by Mendocino Railway to exempt it from paying into the retirement and unemployment funds for railroad employees, because it can’t engage in interstate commerce. Mendocino Railway’s status as a public utility, and whether it is subject to local permitting authority, are being hashed out in the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

As for the Coastal Commission, it’s asking the Department of Transportation for a project description and analysis of the effects the railway’s proposal will have on the coastal zone. Nilsson, the railway attorney, says this is ambiguous, and “this preliminary response should not be considered a waiver or concession” of the railway’s “right to take further action.”

The Department of Transportation has not yet disbursed the $31.4 million loan to the railway.

Local News
Sarah Reith came to Mendocino County in 2008 and worked as a reporter and freelancer, joining KZYX as a community news reporter in 2017. She became the KZYX News Director in March, 2023.