By STEVE HART
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Freight trains won’t return to Sonoma County next week after three environmental groups threatened legal action Wednesday to block service on the Northwestern Pacific Railroad.
The Humboldt County groups said train traffic violates environmental laws and threatens the wild and scenic Eel River.
The North Coast Railroad Authority, the public agency responsible for freight service, has no plans to operate trains along the Eel, but the environmental groups said the agency must consider effects on the river, which could see rail traffic to Eureka in the future.
“NCRA’s unwillingness to acknowledge the harm to communities and the environment that reopening the rail line will cause violates the public’s trust,” said Patty Clary of Californians for Alternatives to Toxics.
“Taxpayers shouldn’t have to shell out more money to support this railroad until they know the facts.”
Friends of the Eel River and the Environmental Protection Information Center also sent letters threatening to sue.
If the authority eventually reopens the railroad north of Willits, “it would be extremely damaging to the Eel River,” said Scott Greacen, director of Friends of the Eel.
The authority on Wednesday postponed final approval of the freight service after its attorney said he needs time to evaluate the legal threats.
“We believe it’s the prudent thing to do,” said attorney Chris Neary.
Freight trains were scheduled to return as soon as next week to a 62-mile stretch of the rail line between Napa County and Windsor.
In May, federal rail regulators lifted an embargo on train traffic over the segment, closed since 2001 because of storm damage.
On Wednesday, the authority was to approve a joint operating agreement with Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, which has plans for commuter service on the route. It also was expected to approve a final settlement with Novato, which sued over the freight project in 2007.
The authority was expected to certify an environmental report on freight service next week, the last step before trains can roll. But those actions are now on hold until at least June 20 when the authority meets again.
The environmental groups said the authority failed to clean up toxic sites and ignored other damaging effects of freight traffic. They said they will sue if the authority begins rail service without addressing their claims.