By BOB NORBERG
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Two conservation groups are suing the North Coast Railroad Authority, contending its environmental impact reports do not address the impacts of rail reconstruction or reopening the line in the Eel River Canyon.
The suits were filed in Marin County Superior Court on Wednesday by Friends of the Eel River and by the Californians for Alternatives to Toxics.
Mitch Stogner, NCRA’s executive director, said the suits were filed even as NCRA and the two conservation groups are discussing a solution to the dispute.
Freight train service returned July 13 to the North Coast after almost a decade of inactivity when Northwestern Pacific Railroad Co. delivered grain to a Petaluma feed mill.
There had been no cargo service on the NWP since 2001, when the Federal Railroad Administration halted traffic because of storm damage.
The North Coast Railroad Authority spent $68 million to repair 62 miles of track from Napa County to Windsor and leased the line to NWP Co. to operate freight service.
The line remains closed north of Windsor. The railroad has plans to eventually restore service to Willits, but has no plans to restore service through the Eel River Canyon to Eureka.
Californians for Alternatives to Toxics in its suit contends the NCRA report doesn’t address existing toxic hotspots or how to keep toxics out of the Russian River when it rebuilds its line north of Windsor.
“We are not interested in stopping the railroad anywhere, we are only in interested in stopping toxic pollution caused by the reconstruction,” said Patty Clary, the group’s executive director. “If they can come up with a way to prevent harm to our communities and water, fine, happy railroad.”
Clary said there are areas along the right-of-way where reconstruction and the chemicals from railroad ties would harm the quality of the Russian River.
Friends of the Eel River’s suit contends that the environmental report neglects to address the impact of reopening in the Eel River Canyon, a landscape where slides are frequent and is home to coho, chinook and steelhead.
Although the NCRA states it has no intention to reopen that section of line, it remains in the railroad’s official project plans.
The environmental group also contends that the railroad plans to serve a large open-pit gravel mine that would be started at Island Mountain in Mendocino County, which it contends is the only reason running freight is economically feasible.
Stogner said reopening the Eel River Canyon line is prohibitively expensive and not in the NCRA’s plans.