Editor’s Note â¢ This story is only available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Thank you for supporting local journalism.
The Utah Inland Port Authority has worked behind the scenes to explore a secret proposal to rehabilitate an unused California railroad in the hope of using it to ship coal mined from the West overseas via a remote 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, Utah Port Authority employee Christopher Mitton participated in a conference call with two representatives from the coal industry, an administrator from a tribe in northern California and a man named Justin Wight, identified as the âproject advisorâ. The purpose of the call was to discuss the takeover of the North Coast Railroad and the development of an export terminal at Humboldt Bay. The project would have full, or at least majority, tribal ownership.
According to a note written by Mitton summarizing the March 16 appeal, Wight was seeking up to $ 1 billion in loans from the US Department of Transportation to rehabilitate the railway line, which winds through the Eel River Canyon. in Northern California.
“This program is not a grant program but a program of loans that should be repaid,” the memo reads. âThe loan is probably conditional on entering into long-term contracts as a source of repayment. “
The memo does not specify which federal loan program, but a likely option is the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Funding Program, overseen by the Department of Transportation’s Build America office. However, the North Coast Railroad does not appear on the list of active projects in the program.
Industry representatives on the call were Conrad “CJ” Stewart, chief energy officer for the Crow Nation, and Utah Mining Association president Brian Somers. The Crow of southeastern Montana has significant coal reserves in the Powder River Basin. Michelle Vassel, tribal administrator of the Wiyot, a federally recognized tribe and indigenous to Humboldt Bay, joined them in the roll call.
The Wiyot Nation is “fully committed to this project” and the Crow Nation is “seeking a new export channel or a new use of their mineral resources,” according to the memo Mitton sent to
Flygare, the chief operating officer of the port authority.
Vassel did not respond to a request for comment left at the Wiyot tribal offices in California. Stewart did not respond to a voicemail message left on his cell phone. Somers could not be reached and White’s contact details were not available.
Co-founder of the National Tribal Energy Association and a former member of his tribal legislature, Stewart is a leading proponent of coal exports and has spoken out against efforts by Pacific Coast states to block projects. coal loading ports, such as the Millennium Stalled. Bulk terminals in Longview, Washington, and the Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal in San Francisco Bay.
âImagine having a trillion dollars of mineral wealth under your feet and yet your people are starving and destitute before you,â he told a Senate committee in 2018. âIt’s a cruel nightmare that could be avoided if the Clean Water Act was not militarized. against the resource economy of the Crow tribe and the Crow people and culture.
The railway proposal came to light three weeks ago after a shadow company informed the Federal Surface Transport Council of its intention to take over the defunct 100-year-old North Coast railway line and ramshackle that travels 320 miles through the Northern California Coast Mountains from the Bay Area. at the port of Humboldt Bay. The company’s filing indicates that it has a “fully developed” plan to rehabilitate the line for “high volume traffic” and has secured $ 1.2 billion in funding for a project that aims to export fuel. bulk minerals not specified.
Who exactly is behind the new North Coast Railroad Co. remains a mystery, but the available evidence clearly points to the Western coal industry, which has long hoped to increase its maritime export capacity. Hammered by the country’s waning appetite for a fossil fuel closely associated with climate change, Utah coal producers hope to increase their exports to Japan and economically growing Asian countries that burn coal for electricity. . These ambitions have been repeatedly thwarted by local and state political leaders on the West Coast aiming to block coal shipments through their communities and discourage the use of coal elsewhere.
The mystery company’s recent filing, known as the âFinancial Aid Offer,â was ostensibly made to block a popular plan to convert the rail right-of-way to the Great Redwood Trail, which has shocked many Californians across the country. north, little more than Sen State. Mike McGuire, a champion of the rails-to-trails project.
This month, he introduced a bill in the California legislature to block rail rehabilitation.
“This toxic coal train would pass through the heart of so many thriving communities and along the Russian and Eel rivers, which are the primary source of drinking water for nearly a million people,” McGuire said in a released statement. Tuesday. “This dangerous proposal must be stopped.”
But the involvement of the coal industry has been a matter of guesswork thanks to the North Coast Railroad Co.’s complete lack of transparency in its public documents. The Inland Port documents help clarify the roles of Utah, the tribes and the coal industry, although many questions remain unanswered regarding the company: Who does Justin White work for? What is the source of the $ 1.2 billion funding claimed by the company? Do the Crow and Wiyot tribes control the business? Does it have contracts in place with the charcoal producers?
Another note Mitton provided to his boss in March contained contact details for various officials in the Humboldt Bay Harbor District, whom Mitton apparently contacted around this time.
Deputy district manager Adam Wagschal told The Tribune that Mitton had contacted him to ask if the port was suitable for shipping bulk minerals. In an interview this week, Wagschal said he couldn’t recall whether Mitton mentioned charcoal or a specific product.
The port authority refused to make a manager available for an interview.
Speaking through a spokesperson, Flygare said that the involvement of Mitton, who only worked for a few months at the port authority as a “strategic project manager”, was limited. to ask a few questions about the Humboldt Bay project.
The port authority was invited to the March meeting to hear about the proposal, according to Flygare. After performing due diligence, the agency determined that this was not a viable port project and it has not been involved since.
“In response to a Tribune reporter writing a story that incorrectly implies that the Utah Inland Port Authority is pushing or has already supported a plan to ship coal from Utah to Asia – the UIPA did no current or future plans to export coal from Humboldt Bay, “Executive Director Jack Hedge said in an emailed statement. âWe looked into the matter and did not find that this was a project in which the port authority could participate. “
Few believe that the North Coast Railroad has a chance of being restored and put back into service, given the need for a complete rebuild and the difficulty of maintaining the stretch through the slipping-prone Eel River Canyon.
In addition, the port of Humboldt Bay would require costly improvements before it could handle the level of freight traffic described by the promoters of the railway project. The entrance to the port itself is subject to regular closures due to river sediments forming sandbanks which complicate navigation.
The Army Corps of Engineers dredges the canals each spring to remove the sediment that carries the Eel River in the winter, according to Jennifer Kalt, a local environmentalist who heads the Humboldt Baykeeper.
âIt would take a massive increase in dredging to create the types of depths in the navigation channels and then also to open the entrance year round,â Kalt said. Meanwhile, the on-site facilities, all associated with Humboldt’s discolored lumber industry, are unable to handle massive volumes of coal or other bulk mineral products.
âThere’s not really something that someone necessarily calls a port here. There are a lot of old dilapidated mill sites that have docks. Two of them were pulp mills. Some of them were sawmills, and they’re just completely run down and falling apart.
But one remains in fairly good condition and occupies the deepest waters of the port, she said. This is a private facility called Fairhaven Terminal, where the water is 38 feet deep and there are five acres of paved storage. A message left with the owner of this terminal, businessman Eureka Rob Arkley, was not returned.
The inner harbor memo says the bay has existing federal shipping canals that would function for the export of minerals. Wight has identified terminals on the north side of Humboldt Bay that could be used for loading ships and that are not located near environmentally sensitive areas.
“Both Justin [Wight] and MichÃ¨le [Vassel] said there is strong local support for port revitalization and port operations, âthe memo reads. “Michelle mentioned that she would expect some opposition to the project, but not overwhelming.”
Vassel could hardly have been more wrong in this assessment.
“No way, no, how are we going to let this happen,” Senator McGuire said as he unveiled the major additions to his SB307 on Tuesday.
The legislation would prohibit any state funding from being used to improve the northern half of the track for north coal shipments and from being used to build a coal handling terminal at Humboldt Bay.