Remember back in the fall, when the state agency known as the North Coast Railroad Authority started asserting that it wasn’t bound by state environmental law, despite having applied for and received state money for the purpose of complying with state environmental law?

Well, on Tuesday U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Spero told the NCRA to STFU and GTFO of his courtroom. 

Spero’s decision was based on what one might call a technicality, rather than the meat of the matter. The coalition of environmental groups battling to force the railroad authority to perform a proper environmental impact report argued that the case couldn’t be taken federal, as the NCRA wished, because another body — Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit — owns a portion of the tracks, and that agency evinced no wish to move the dispute out of the California justice system. (Download a complete copy of the ruling here.)

But it’s a victory for the enviros nonetheless, because now the NCRA will be forced to place the same limp arguments before a judge sworn to uphold the laws of the state of California. Good luck, guys! 

Press release from Friends of the Eel River below:

Federal Court Rejects North Coast Rail Authority’s Claim That It is Exempt From Environmental Review

A federal court has rejected the North Coast Rail Authority’s claim that it is exempt from review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero ordered a case brought by two North Coast citizens’ groups returned to a state court for review of the NCRA’s compliance with California’s basic environmental law.

Friends of the Eel River and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics challenged the adequacy of the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) filed by the NCRA as it moved to reopen the southern end of the rail line (which the California state agency calls its Russian River Division) and reopen tracks from Windsor to Willits.

Judge Spero’s decision affirmed that the NCRA must abide by a state court’s review of its June 2011 Environmental Impact Report (EIR). The environmental issues raised by CATs and FOER were not addressed by the federal court.

“NCRA didn’t reveal the environmental impacts of its proposal to get this decrepit railroad operating again and, when challenged, tried to hide behind federal railroad law,” said Patty Clary of Californians for Alternatives to Toxics. “That tactic has failed, and we look forward to taking our claims back to state court where review of the merits will be open to the public.”

“A federal court has now agreed that the NCRA, as a California state agency which took California taxpayer funds to do environmental review under California law, cannot walk away from its responsibilities,” said Scott Greacen, executive director of Friends of the Eel River. “This ruling brings us a step closer to protecting the Eel River Canyon and its imperiled salmon and steelhead.”