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Commission asks for review of Skunk project

A train belching smoke as it crosses a bridge over a river.
Drew Jacksich from San Jose, the Republic of California
The Skunk Train at the first crossing of the Noyo River heading eastbound.

The California Coastal Commission voted unanimously to ask for more information about a $31.4 million federal loan.

The California Coastal Commission thinks Mendocino Railway’s proposal to repair tracks and a tunnel between Willits and Fort Bragg needs environmental review. Earlier this year, The U.S. Department of Transportation announced it was awarding a $31.4 million loan to Mendocino Railway and its parent company, the Sierra Northern Railway, to rehabilitate rail infrastructure in northern and central California. The Federal Railroad Administration claimed that the work would not have significant environmental effects, but the Coastal Commission complained that it had not received the documents it needs to make that determination.

At its March 14 meeting in Sacramento, the Commission voted unanimously to send a letter outlining its position to the Federal Railroad Administration. The Commission believes the proposal does have reasonably foreseeable effects on the coast, since the section of track under question runs along the Noyo River, which feeds into the ocean and supplies up to half the drinking water for the city of Fort Bragg. A portion of the track also runs through the coastal zone.

Commission Deputy Director Cassidy Teufel specified the purpose of the March 14 discussion. “In this case, the Commission is not being asked to consider the merits of the project, its consistency with the Coastal Act, or if it should proceed,” he explained. “It's simply considering if it would have coastal effects and therefore warrants additional review.”

Among the foreseeable effects the Commission anticipates are impacts to water quality from the removal and replacement of 32,000 railroad ties. A letter from the railway’s attorney expressed amazement over objections to old arsenic-laden ties being replaced with more environmentally friendly materials, but Teufel disputed the assertion. “Although the negative determination does not specify which preservative treatment would be used for the new railroad ties, a letter recently submitted by Mendocino Railway notes that they would be treated with creosote,” he said. “Creosote is one of the most environmentally harmful types of wood preservative, known to leave significant amounts of hydrocarbon residue in initial years that adversely affects aquatic, marine and terrestrial species of habitats.”

Fort Bragg City Council member Lindy Peters presented a letter signed by the entire council in closed session, describing the indispensable role of the Noyo River to the community. “It is a place to work, recreate or find tranquility of solitude, bolstering coastal tourism and our local economy,” he read. “In fact, many visitors come to Fort Bragg to ride the tourist excursion train nicknamed Skunk. And while we support the continued operations of the Skunk Train, the concerns expressed in the Coastal Commission's Deputy Director Report are valid. Environmental review is an important step in the development process, serving to prevent or minimize reasonably foreseeable damage to the environment…It is imperative that the city's primary source of drinking water is preserved.”

Former Commission Chair Donne Brownsey, who also lives in Fort Bragg, also called for environmental review and more transparency from the federal government, which has not made the loan application available either to the Commission or the city of Fort Bragg. “Mendocino Railroad is not being treated unfairly or being targeted by the Commission,” she asserted. “What is unusual is for a federal agency to request a negative declaration, given the scope of this project and to provide so little information and data on the elements of the proposal. Unfortunately, Mendocino Railroad has not inspired confidence in the community that it will follow state and local rules.”

In 2016, the Mendocino Railway received a cleanup and abatement order from the California Regional Quality Control Board for unauthorized discharge into Pudding Creek at the site of the collapsed tunnel, where there were reportedly no erosion controls in place. A local judge agreed with the California Public Utilities Commission that the train is not a federally regulated public utility. The matter is pending in the ninth circuit court of appeals.

Commission attorney Matt Christian stated that the federal Coastal Zone Management Act, or CZMA, which grants the Coastal Commission its authority to regulate the coast, is not in conflict with the federal regulation of railroads.

David Schonbrun, Vice President of the Train Riders Association of California, believes the train is a federal concern, and rebuked the Commission for its ignorance of railroading procedures. He also pointed out that Commission Chair Caryl Hart also chairs the Great Redwood Trail Authority, which he blasted as anti-environmental.

“Do you really want the Commission to carry water for an agency with an anti-environmental policy?” He demanded, adding that, “Freight rail is the environmentally superior way to ship goods. This Commission should support getting trucks off the highway.”

Two years ago, when Mendocino Railway tried to purchase 13 miles of track north of Willits, the Surface Transportation Board found that the company did not have the financial wherewithal to rehabilitate the infrastructure, and that it’s not financially possible for freight to compete with trucks in the region.

Commissioner Mike Wilson, of Arcata, said the train’s proposal was difficult to analyze with so little information, including about the company’s finances.

“These are loans,” he noted. “So there's an assumption that they get paid back, and that their revenue is based on those loans…These applications then have to make statements of how they're going to generate the revenue, and within that there are potential impacts…It's just hard to know what the impacts of this project will be. If you don’t even know what it's carrying, you don't know what they are. They are enumerated, maybe, in the application, but we don't have access to that. So we don't really know, and neither does the community.”

He also weighed in on the train’s claim that it provides transportation, reflecting that,

“When we talk about passenger rail, I think sometimes people conflate that a train that has people on it is passenger rail, but I think that that's not transportation…because the people are just riding for amusement…It's no more transportation than a roller coaster.”

Hart concluded by saying that she hopes the letter will improve communication between the Coastal Commission and the Federal Railroad Administration, “So that we can, first of all, get documents,” she said during her closing remarks. “For example, one of the documents that I think is important is the application for the loan, which details what the project actually is. What the impacts will be, how they will be mitigated. So I think getting those documents, opening up the line of communication, is the goal of the letter, and the goal, really, of the CZMA.”

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.