Screenshot from a 2009 YouTube video showing the degraded conditions of the NCRA rail corridor through the Eel River Canyon.


On Thursday the Outpost reported that, contrary to some celebratory pronouncements at Sen. Mike McGuire’s “Stop the Toxic Train” town hall the previous night, the effort to ship coal out of Humboldt Bay is not dead.

That’s because, earlier that day, the North Coast Railroad Company LLC (NCRCo), a shadowy corporate entity, had filed paperwork with the Surface Transportation Board indicating that it still planned to file an Offer of Financial Assistance in hopes of purchasing the long-defunct stretch of rail line between Willits and Eureka, plus a few branch lines along the way.

The company had missed the Surface Transportation Board’s May 31 filing deadline by a day, a mishap it attributed to “unforeseen vacation travel delays and related issues,” but the filing urged the Board to overlook that fact. 

While the credibility of this coal train proposal has been in question since it first reared its sooty head, the effort nevertheless jeopardizes the prospects for the Great Redwood Trail, a state-led initiative to railbank the 320-mile rail line between the Bay Area and Humboldt County for conversion to a “world-class, multi-use rail-to-trail project” along the state-owned right-of-way. 

Cut to today, when attorneys for the Great Redwood Trail Agency, the state agency in charge of managing that right-of-way, effectively called “bullshit” on this coal choo-choo scheme in a filing that points to some dubious details in NCRCo’s overture and asks the Surface Transportation Board to reject it.

For one thing, agency attorney Charles Montange notes, the company did miss the clearly specified filing deadline, and its excuse — that its two attorneys experienced simultaneous vacation mixups — sounds a bit suspicious.

“It is hard to believe they both experienced travel delays at the same time,” Montange writes. “They simply failed to prepare their filing in a timely fashion.” He goes on to call this an “inexcusable lack of preparation.”

More amusingly, fellow Great Redwood Trail Agency attorney Elizabeth Coleman managed to get a look at some financial data that had been inadequately redacted from NCRCo’s latest filing, and the numbers hiding behind the blacked out-page aren’t quite what you’d expect from a company that claimed earlier in the process to be “capitalized to the tune of $1.2 billion.”

In a sworn declaration, Coleman says she was examining a document from NCRCo — one that purports to be a bank statement from Self-Help Credit Union in Greensboro, N.C. — and noticed that when she copied-and-pasted the text from the Adobe PDF format to a Micosoft Word format, transaction information from the bank statement was suddenly visible. 

What did the statement show? A list of transactions to and from a man named Jason Justin Wight, whom we interviewed last September. He’s a self-described “independent consultant” who to date has been the only quasi-public face of NCRCo. The statement also included transactions from a company called TerraNova Strategies LLC, for which Wight is the senior partner.

More telling than the names, though, were the numbers. Montange notes that there’s an account labeled “Money Market” that shows beginning and ending balances in the $15.7 million range. That’s a lot of money in most contexts, but it’s well below “the tune” of $1.2 billion that the company was claiming to have on hand last year.

Montange drily observes that NCRCo “appears to have lost over 98% of its capitalization claimed last August … .”

And there’s reason to doubt the veracity of even that figure. Coleman’s declaration notes that the bank statement, which includes only one page, labeled “Page 1 of 3,” reports the account balances for the period of March 31 through April 21. The starting balance is mere $1,471.65 and the ending balance is $2,025.96.

Montange, for one, is skeptical.

“Aside from some sort of inadvertent mix-up or fraud, there are no ready explanations for how an account claiming to contain over $15,700,000 on the same page also represents its contents as only $1,471.61 for the same date,” he writes.

Montange lists a few other reasons why the Surface Transportation Board should reject the coal company’s takeover bid. Meanwhile, three other Offers of Financial Assistance have been made, and while they describe less-ambitious proposals for much shorter segments of the right-of-way, they, too, could threatening the future of both the Great Redwood Trail and the Bay Trail between Arcata and Eureka.

The job of examining the merits and credibility of those proposals lies entirely with the Surface Transportation Board.