The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously passed a resolution opposing the threat posed by potential coal exports via Humboldt Bay.
The notion that such a resolution would even be considered may have seemed implausible as recently as early last month. But then news broke that a mysterious corporation is trying to take over the North Coast Railroad Authority’s right-of-way between Humboldt Bay and the San Francisco Bay Area in an apparent effort to facilitate large-scale exports of coal from the Powder River Basin to markets in Asia.
Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson and Fourth District Supervisor Virginia Bass brought Tuesday’s resolution to the board, and in his introductory remarks Wilson said there’s fairly strong evidence that people behind the shadowy, newly formed North Coast Railroad Co., LLC, are fueled by the dirty-burning mineral.
“I think it’s reasonable for Humboldt County to take the potential for coal exports seriously,” Wilson said.
He mentioned a study commissioned by the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District, back when he was on the board of commissioners, which found that coal was the only commodity valuable enough to potentially cover the hefty price of rehabilitating the dilapidated rail line between Humboldt Bay and Willits.
First District Supervisor Rex Bohn said he supports the resolution, though he considers the threat far-fetched.
“There’s a snowball’s chance in hell that coal will come out of Humboldt Bay,” he said.
Still, Bohn said he’s completely opposed to the notion of trains hauling coal through the geologically unstable Eel River Canyon.
Wilson suggested a few edits to the draft resolution in order to eliminate references to opposing coal trains, specifically, as well as some references to the Great Redwood Trail. His reasoning was that the opposition to coal shouldn’t be technology-specific, and that the board has already memorialized its support for the Great Redwood Trail, a proposal to railbank the NCRA line for the purposes of constructing a multi-use trail along the 320-mile route.
Bohn thanked him for those edits, saying he supports the Great Redwood Trail as long as the property rights of adjacent residents are respected.
With the board telegraphing its eventual support for the draft resolution, the public comment period lacked some of the fiery indignation it might have had otherwise. A pair of trail advocates, Colin Fiske from the Coalition for Responsible Transportation Priorities and Bruce Silvey of the Humboldt Trails Council, thanked the board for its support, with Fiske urging the county to engage directly with the Surface Transportation Board, the federal agency with the power to approve or reject the rail-takeover bid.
Compulsive public commenter Kent Sawatzky, on the other hand, said coal has a lot of potential. Perhaps carbon will replace lithium in battery production, and maybe carbon fiber will replace steel in construction. “Some feel carbon may be our future and our friend,” he said. He added that anyone who thinks the Great Redwood Trail will actually be built is “hopelessly naive.”
The board chose not to address these musings and proceeded to pass the resolution unanimously. The document directs county staff to start drafting an ordinance aimed at protecting the public and public trust resources from the negative health and safety impacts caused by coal.