Even before the Outpost broke the story that a secretive corporation is trying to take over the North Coast Railroad Authority’s right-of-way in an apparent scheme to export coal to Asian markets via Humboldt Bay, state and federal lawmakers have been pulling out all the stops in hopes of thwarting the plan. 

As the latest line of defense, U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, our current representative in Congress, and U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, who formerly repped the North Coast but now represents California’s 5th District (which includes all of Napa County and parts of Contra Costa, Lake, Solano and Sonoma counties) have sent a letter to former South Bend mayor and presidential candidate/current U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg urging his department to withhold any and all financial assistance for this apparent coal export project.

Here’s the letter:

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After numerous attempts to reach Wiyot Tribal Administrator Michelle Vassel and Tribal Chair Ted Hernandez for comment in recent weeks, the Outpost received an email Wednesday afternoon with statements from both Vassel and Wiyot Tribal Secretary Marnie Atkins concerning the efforts by North Coast Railroad Company, LLC, to take over the rail line between Humboldt Bay and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Both statements are reproduced in full below.
From Vassel:
I have been repeatedly contacted by Mike McGuire’s staff, Jason Liles, who informed me Monday night about the memo quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune. I do not know any one of the names associated with the memo, and I am not quoted in the memo as stating the Tribe is “fully committed.”  

There is a statement in the memo that reads, “The Wiyot Nation is “fully committed to this project… ,” which is not attributed to me.   From my recollection about this call, it was a presentation about Humboldt Bay and potential port development. The Tribe participates in meetings like this every day. We review permits, we review concepts, we review economic development projects. We carefully consider each project and conduct due diligence efforts to ensure that any potential project aligns with the Tribe’s commitment to the health and wellbeing of Wiyot people and their ancestral lands...

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Justin Wight, an independent consultant working for the recently formed North Coast Railroad Company, LLC, says the corporation’s plans have been misrepresented.

“It’s not as it has been made to appear to most people,” he told the Outpost in a phone interview Monday.

Our conversation with Wight came on the heels of a story in the Salt Lake Tribune that reveals details of a March conference call between government officials in Utah, Wiyot Tribal Administrator Michelle Vassel, two representatives of the coal industry and Wight himself. 

Vassel previously denied to the Outpost that the tribe had received or accepted any proposals related to coal, and U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman said she’d told him the same thing, “unequivocally” denying that the tribe would support this rail line takeover effort. 

The email suggests otherwise. “Both Justin [Wight] and Michelle [Vassel] stated there is strong local support for revitalizing the harbor and port operations,” it says. “Michelle mentioned she would expect some, but not overwhelming opposition to the project.”

Numerous calls and emails to Vassel over the past few weeks have not been returned. 

The Humboldt Bay Harbor District is already preparing to take action to block their plan. Harbor Commissioner Stephen Kullmann said he’s not sure if the board will pass an ordinance or take some other approach, but he’s working on something that will have “as much teeth as possible,” he said.

Kullmann said the mysterious project backers “seem to have the idea that they can do it without any local buy-in, that they can force their will through. I highly doubt they’ll be able to do that.”

McGuire reiterated his determination to block the project. “We will fight this at every level and make damn sure this ridiculous idea goes away,” he said.

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The Utah Inland Port Authority worked behind the scenes exploring a secretive proposal to rehabilitate an unused California railroad with the hope of using it to ship Western-mined coal overseas through an out-of-the-way port on the Northern California coast, according to internal documents obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune.

In March, six months before the rail project came to public attention, a Utah port authority staffer named Christopher Mitton participated in a conference call with two coal industry representatives, an administrator from a Northern California tribe and a man named Justin Wight, identified as the “project consultant.” The call’s purpose was to discuss taking over the North Coast Railroad and develop an export terminal at Humboldt Bay. The project would have complete, or at least majority, tribal ownership.

The industry representatives on the call were Conrad “CJ” Stewart, energy director for the Crow Nation, and Utah Mining Association president Brian Somers. The Crow of southeast Montana holds extensive coal reserves in the Powder River Basin. Joining them on the call was Michelle Vassel, tribal administrator for the Wiyot, a federally recognized tribe that is indigenous to Humboldt Bay.

The Wiyot Nation is “fully committed to this project” and the Crow Nation is “looking for any new export channel or new use for their mineral resources,” according to the memo that Mitton sent to Flygare, the port authority’s chief operating officer.

Vassel did not respond to a request for comment left at the Wiyot tribal offices in California. Stewart did not respond to a voicemail left on his cellphone. Somers could not be reached and contact information for Wight was not available.

“There would have to be a massive increase in dredging to create the kinds of depths at the shipping channels and then also to open the entrance year-round,” Kalt said. Meanwhile, the facilities on the site, all associated with Humboldt’s faded timber industry, are in no shape for handling mass volumes of coal or other bulk mineral commodities.

But one remains in fairly good condition and occupies the harbor’s deepest water, she said. It’s a privately owned facility called the Fairhaven Terminal, where the water is 38 feet deep and there are five acres of paved storage. A message left for that terminal’s owner, Eureka businessman Rob Arkley, was not returned.

The Inland Port memo indicates the bay has existing federal shipping channels that would work for exporting minerals. Wight identified terminals on the north side of Humboldt Bay that could be used for loading ships and are not close to environmentally sensitive areas.

“Both Justin [Wight] and Michelle [Vassel] stated there is strong local support for revitalizing the harbor and port operations,” the memo said. “Michelle mentioned she would expect some, but not overwhelming opposition to the project.”

Vassel could have hardly been more wrong in this assessment.

“No way, no how are we going to let this happen,” said Sen. McGuire in unveiling key additions to his SB307 on Tuesday.

The legislation would ban any state funding from being used to improve the northern half of the rail line for coal shipments north and from being used to build a coal handling terminal at Humboldt Bay.

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Elected officials are introducing resolutions and even a statehouse bill opposing a mysterious proposal to ship coal up to Humboldt Bay on both existing and defunct rail lines. The flurry of measures came even though no new information has surfaced about who is behind the coal shipping proposal, which came to light in late August through filings with the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, a federal agency that oversees freight rail shipping. U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, and State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, have said the newly created North Coast Rail Company intends to ship coal from Wyoming and Montana’s Powder River Basin by rail for ultimate international export out of Humboldt Bay.

McGuire estimated the North Coast could one day see as many as four trainloads of coal, each a hundred cars long, per day, with four empty trainloads returning. He reached the estimate using current commodity prices to calculate how much coal a company would have to ship to meet a minimum return on investment that would be demanded by federal railroad regulators before they would approve such a venture, he said.

With coal declining as a global energy source and a steep investment required, officials put the minimum cost to rebuild just the rail line higher than $2 billion. That does not include the cost to build out a coal shipping port in Humboldt Bay. It also doesn’t include the expense of fighting an extended legal and public relations battle in a region firmly opposed to coal and dedicated to climate change mitigation politically.

Those factors led at least one energy industry expert to say the prospect was economically unwieldy.

“It’s the longest of long shots,” said Seth Feaster, an analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

A wave of resolutions by local governing bodies oppose the proposal. The Transportation Authority of Marin passed a resolution against the idea on Sept. 23. The Novato City Council and the Marin County Board of Supervisors are set to consider similar resolutions in coming weeks. The Mendocino Board of Supervisors passed a resolution in opposition on Sept. 15, as did the Ukiah City Council.

Members of the Windsor Town Council, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and Santa Rosa City Council all told The Press Democrat this week they would be bringing their own proposals, as elected members of bodies up and down the SMART line rush to indicate their opposition to even the slightest possibility of long trains of coal chugging through the North Bay.

“There is just no way in hell that citizens of Sonoma County, with it going through the Eel River Canyon and it being coal, with long trains through the heart of our communities all for an outdated carbon fuel source … I just can’t imagine anyone being supportive of this idea,” Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, the current chair of the SMART board of directors, said Friday.

As the nation and much of the world continues to move away from coal-fired electricity, a shift driven by climate change concerns and the rise of renewable energy and domestically by cheap natural gas, investors are increasingly shy about backing coal schemes, analysts say. The fact that the shipping project here would take several years at a minimum to get off the ground only adds to the challenge.

“These are very speculative adventures, and if there was a good market case to do this you would see more development than there has been and you would see significant exports out of Vancouver, and you just don’t,” Godby said.

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