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Activists Sue North Coast Railroad Authority

The Independent
Tuesday, July 26, 2011
(Southern Humboldt Newspaper)

Activists Sue North Coast Rail Authority

Impact on Eel River Canyon Not Adequately Studied,
Say FOER and CATs

by Keith Easthouse
Independent Staff Writer

Picture: An old railroad bridge crosses the Eel River at Island Mountain. Environmentalists contend that the NCRA and a private rail company want to open a gravel mine there at public expense without
proper review.

The North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) has not properly studied the impact of reopening the rail line in the landslide-prone Eel River Canyon according to two environmental groups.

The groups, Friends of the Eel River and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, filed a lawsuit in Marin County Superior Court last week challenging the final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) the authority
completed earlier this summer.

"We are gravely concerned [that] the NCRA, a public agency, and the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Company (NWP Co.), the private company that has leased the entire railroad for the next century, are doing their best to avaoid real environmental review of the gravel train they want the public to pay for," said Scott Graecen of Friends of the Eel River.

Chris Neary, a lawyer with the rail authority, said Monday that the environmentalists' lawsuit "identifies matters of degree rather than matters of great weight." Neary also said that the filing of the lawsuit comes at a time when the rail authority and the environmental groups are in the midst of settlement negotiations.

"We expect we might agree to settle the litigation," Neary said. If the discussions fail, then the dispute would likely go to trial, perhaps as early as next spring, Neary added.

Freight train service was resumed earlier this month on the 62-mile portion of the rail line that runs from Napa County to Windsor, north of Santa Rosa. The line had lain dormant since 2001, when the Federal
Railroad Administration shut it down due to storm damage.

Environmentalists, concerned in part by the fact that the canyon harbors populations of Coho and Chinook salmon and steelhead, say that the authority's report is inadequate because it doesn't evaluate the
cumulative environmental impact of reopening the rail line along its entire stretch up to Humboldt Bay.

Instead, the report evaluates impacts on the southern portion of the line up to Windsor.

Neary reiterated the authority's longstanding claim that while it intends to eventually restore service up to Willits, it has no plans to go further north through the Eel River Canyon. Doing so would be prohibitively costly, he said.

Even if rail service were restored through the Eel River Canyon, it would be so far off into the future -- 20 to 30 years or more -- that any evaluation now about potential environmental impacts would be "nothing more than guesswork," Neary added.

On Friday, Nadananda, executive director of Friends of the Eel River, pointed out that restoring service through the canyon remains a part of the authority's business plans.

She also contended that the railroad wants to provide service to a large open-pit hard rock mine that would be excavated at a site in Trinity County known as Island Mountain, saying that that's the only thing that
would make running trains through the remote area economically feasible.

She warned that the mine, if it's opened, would remove a bend in the Eel and worsen flooding and erosion downstream. "It would wipe out the Alderpoint bridges," she said.

Patty Clary of Californians for Alternatives to Toxics said that the authority's report doesn't address existing toxic hotspots along the line or how to keep toxins out of watercourses.

"The law requires that we be fully informed, that hazards be identified and safer options devised. That's what we,re asking for," Clary said.

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