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The Little Train That Can’t

Four environmental groups are preparing a lawsuit against the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) alleging that the agency is segmenting environmental review for redevelopment of its 316-mile rail line.

The Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), Humboldt Baykeeper, Friends of the Eel River and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics signed on to a July 29 letter to NCRA Board Chairman Allan Hem­phill that refers to the NCRA’s Draft Environmental Im­pact Report (DEIR) for redevelopment of the rail section between Lombard and Willits. The letter states that con­cerns about piece-mealing environmental review have intensified.

In interviews, representatives of the environmental groups said those concerns have led to the preparation of a lawsuit against the NCRA.

“We are committed to standing together on this,” said Nadananda, executive director of Friends of the Eel River.

The July 29 letter asks questions about the use of rail areas not covered in the southern section’s draft EIR. A proposal from the Fort Seward Fire Safe Council to clear brush from three areas of the NCRA’s northern rail line — Fort Seward, Fairhaven and an area of Humboldt Bay near College of the Redwoods — would involve use of the rails and track repair, the letter states.

“Such repair triggered CEQA (California Environ­mental Quality Act) review on the south end of the NCRA line — is there some reason why it would not trigger CEQA review requirements here?” the letter asks.

A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the NCRA and the Fort Seward Fire Safe Council will be on the agenda of the NCRA’s Aug. 11 meeting in Marin County.

The letter states that “an MOU as proposed, for track clearing and repairs to allow use 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 sections of the rail line, apparently without benefit of the impacts analysis, disclosure and mitigation that would appear required by law.”

Mitch Stogner, the NCRA’s manager, strongly dis­agreed. He said the premise of the letter is removed from reality. “The letter was so loaded with misrepresenta­tions, it’s embarrassing,” he said. “I’ve never seen such a misrepresentation of facts as I read in that letter — and furthermore, they know it.”

Referencing the letter’s questions on use of the rails and repairing them to do the brush removal, Stogner said, “To say that considering an MOU with an inde­pendent group constitutes operations in the Eel River Canyon is a blatant untruth.”

Nadananda said her group and the others have valid concerns. “We would have never written a letter based on lies — why bother?” she asked. “Our perception is, they’re going ahead with little fixes on the railroad with no environmental review and that is of grave concern to us … we feel that they’re the ones playing games by bifurcating the project into three sections.”

Scott Greacen of EPIC also said that the NCRA has illegally segmented environmental review by only look­ing at the south end of the line while track repairs and operations are being carried out or considered north of it.

“They have to make a choice — they either have to say they won’t develop the (Eel River) Canyon and the north end, or they have to do an environmental analysis for the whole thing and figure out what they’re going to do with the canyon,” he continued.

Stogner said that brush clearing work and the running of the Humboldt Bay speeder rides doesn’t fall into the category of railroad operations. “And as we have con­sistently explained, we will have to do another EIR before anything happens north of Willits,” he continued. “And they will have every opportunity to hire every law­yer under the sun to stop us.”

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