How That Cute Li’l Speeder Helped Open Up A Can(yon) Of Worms – August 19, 2010
EPIC –- the Environmental Protection
Californians for Alternatives to Toxics
Friends of the Eel River
Friday, July 29, 2010
Alan Hemphill, Chair
Board of Directors
North Coast Rail Authority
419 Talmadge Road, Suite M
Ukiah, CA 95482
RE: Repairs and Operations, Including Passenger Service on the Middle and Northern Portions of the NCRA Rail Line.
Dear Mr. Hemphill and members of the NCRA Board of Directors,
We write to note our concerns regarding the potential environmental effects and risks to public safety raised by repairs and operations being contemplated or actually underway on the middle (Eel River Canyon) and northern (Eel River – Humboldt Bay) portions of the NCRA rail line.
We note from the posted agenda for the most recent meeting of the NCRA Board of Directors, held in Eureka this 14th of July, as well as from Daniel Mintz’ coverage of the meeting in the Independent newspaper, that the NCRA Board received a presentation at that meeting regarding a possible MOU between the NCRA and the Fort Seward Fire Safe Council, and is slated to discussion such an MOU at the next meeting of the NCRA Board of Directors. The proposed MOU would apparently provide for track repairs and operations for various portions of the NCRA rail line, including areas near Fort Seward, around the College of the Redwoods campus south of Eureka, as well as areas around Humboldt Bay. According to the Independent, discussion of this proposal for track repairs were clearly linked to discussions of railroad operations.
We note also passenger rail operations on the NCRA rail line. Please find attached a photograph, taken on Wednesday July 28, 2010, of a poster advertising commercial passenger service on tracks owned by the NCRA. This particular poster was on the front door of Hensel’s Ace Hardware in Arcata; these posters are hanging in various public places in the Arcata and Eureka area. Similar advertisements are running on at least one local radio station. These advertisements clearly reflect an invitation to the public to participate in a commercial business involving operations being conducted on NCRA’s rail lines. Are these operations being undertaken with the 1 permission and under the supervision of the NCRA? Is it in fact the case that the tracks are open for anyone who wants to run rail equipment along the line?
The NCRA has taken the position, for example in the May 6, 2009 document posted on the NCRA website titled “Responses to Frequently Asked Questions Regarding NCRA and NWP Co.,” that it will not undertake operations in the Eel River Canyon and northern end of the rail line without a business plan, identified funding, and environmental review.
Q. When and how will NCRA and NWPCo resume service on the Eel River Division?
With respect to the Canyon portion of the Eel River Division, the NCRA will consider restoration of service through the Eel River Canyon when the following issues are fully addressed:
• A Business Plan is developed by the Operator (NWP Co.) which identifies freight volume sufficient to justify the costs of repairs and maintenance of the NWP line through the Eel River Canyon;
• The funds necessary to repair the NWP line to at least Class II level (25 mph) through the Eel River Canyon have been identified;
• An Environmental Impact Report (IER) that evaluates the costs to repair the infrastructure and operate trains, and evaluates the environmental impact of such repairs and operations through the Eel River Canyon, is prepared and certified by the NCRA Board of Directors.
Q. When and how will the NCRA and NWP Co. resume service on the Eel River Division? (see previous answer regarding Canyon portion of the ERD)
With Respect to the far Northern portion of the Eel River Division (South Fork to Samoa), the NCRA and NWP Co. would like to repair and initiate service on a belt line from South Fork, around Humboldt Bay to Samoa as soon as funding for repairs can be secured, and environmental clearance to initiate repairs can be obtained. NWP Co. has estimated that about $30 million is needed to repair the 62-67 miles from South Fork to Samoa. NWP Co. believes this belt line could be used for shipment of lumber, construction materials and aggregate. A rail–barge transfer would be desirable to successfully implement this service. Additionally, NWP Co. is committed to providing operational and financial support to the Timber Heritage Association (THA) for its proposed excursion service between Eureka and Samoa.
We are aware of no business plan, funding, or environmental review for either the Eel canyon or the north end of the line, and are troubled by the NCRA’s apparent willingness to encourage operations in the absence of appropriate and necessary operation plans, environmental review, and agency oversight to protect public safety and the environment.
We have repeatedly pointed out, for example in comments on the DEIR for the so–called “Russian River Division,” that the NCRA appears to be segmenting its environmental analysis of the rail line in a manner that is inconsistent with the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act. These concerns are only heightened by the fact that the NCRA appears to be allowing, encouraging, and expanding commercial activites in sections where it explictly states that it has no plans for operations.
These concerns are further heightened by our understanding that various repairs are being contemplated or undertaken to the rail line by entities other than the NCRA and its operator. For example, we note that organizations external to the NCRA are proposing to conduct repairs of the track around Bracut. These actions, which appear to include placement of structural fill at the edge of Humboldt Bay, could result in impacts to listed species, sensitive habitats, wetlands and aquatic habitats, areas within the Coastal Zone and other sensitive resources.
Are these activities being undertaken with the approval and oversight of the NCRA? If not, how can the NCRA be allowing public rail operations on its line? If yes, can the NCRA explain how allowing such activities to go forward is consistent with the NCRA’s stated position regarding the financial, operational, and environmental review prerequisites to operations in the Eel canyon and north end of the line?
These repairs and the operations appear to be underway without benefit of agency review or the permits and oversight normally required to protect public safety and natural resources. Accordingly, we have copied this letter to agencies which may have oversight responsibilities in these areas.
Further, it has come to our attention that the operations and repairs may not be being conducted with the appropriately high level of protection for the public, which may result in increased liability for the NCRA. Is the NCRA adequately insured against claims from the public resulting from injuries suffered from a potential accident, whether the result of operator error or inadequate or faulty track repairs?
We we have a some specific questions and concerns with respect to the proposal from the “Fort Seward Fire Safe Council” for an MOU relating to removal of non–native invasive species and other burnable materials.
As a threshold issue, it is our understanding that clearing the tracks as has been proposed would require repair of the tracks. Such repair triggered CEQA review on the south end of the NCRA line – is there some reason it would not trigger CEQA review requirements here?
For the purposes of environmental review, as well as appropriate administration of public assets, such activities would also seem to require at the very least some showing of consistency or compliance with an overarching maintenance and operations plan. We are aware of no such plan for these areas. If there is such a plan, please explain what it is, how it was prepared, and how the NCRA is funding its implementation.
Along with public safety concerns, with any railroad operation of this sort, there is some potential to affect sensitive species, including native plants, as well as important habitats for native species. It is extremely important to accurately assess the area to be treated, the proposed methods and scope of work, in order to avoid potential impacts on threatened species. What, if any, environmental analysis and review has or will be conducted prior to entering into an agreement such as the one proposed? What mitigation measures would be required; how would they be funded and implemented? Perhaps most importantly, under whose auspices would this work be conducted? Who is accountable? Who will the permits be issued too, if not the NCRA?
We understand that some of the work is being couched in terms of addressing potential risks of fire from the vegetation that has overgrown the railroad in some areas following the effective closure of the line some fifteen years ago. While the risks of fire to homes and other structures from young, dense stands of vegetation can in fact be quite serious, those risks diminish very sharply with increasing distance.
As numerous studies have indicated, and as CalFIRE constantly reminds California citizens, the first hundred feet of space around a home or building is considered the critical zone for effectively addressing risks from wildfires. Thus, while it is possible that there may in fact be some homes and structures at some increased risk of fire due to their proximity to dense brush along the NCRA rail line along the Eel and up to Humboldt Bay, it is unlikely that those risks are either so severe or so continuous as to merit clearance repair and operations along the whole run of the NCRA’s tracks from Ft. Seward to Humboldt Bay. Rather, such risks are almost certainly likely to be more effectively addressed through site–‐specific treatments.
If the Board were to find that the fire risks of fuels on and along the NCRA right of way are in fact severe to substantial numbers of homes and properties, it would be incumbent on the Board to direct the NCRA to address those liabilities by undertaking such fuel–hazard reduction work as would be appropriate to the type and level of fire risks, in conjuntion with the adjacent and local fire districts in Manila, Arcata, Eureka, Fortuna and similar areas.
An MOU as proposed, for track clearing and repairs to allow operation of rail equipment, would seem to indicate that the NCRA does intend, in the near future and contrary to the representations of the DEIR, to open both the northern and middle segments of the rail line, apparently without benefit of the impacts analysis, disclosure, and mitigation that would appear required by law.
Executive Director, EPIC /s/
Executive Director, Humboldt Baykeeper /s/
Executive Director, Californians for Alternatives to Toxics /s/
Executive Director, Friends of the Eel River
Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation, and Conservation District
City of Arcata
City of Eureka
City of Fortuna
Humboldt County Board of Supervisors
Humboldt County – Public Works
California Coastal Commission
California Department of Fish and Game
California Transportation Commission
Surface Transportation Board
Public Utility Commision
Redwood Community Action Agency
USFWS – Arcata
USFWS – Humboldt Bay NWR
US Army Corps of Engineers