Wednesday, October 15, 2008


And why? Consider this reprint from the Environmental Protection Information Center

The Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit, SMART is deeply connected to NCRA and NWP. A build for one is a boon for the other. Read this before you vote on the Billion.3 Tax Proposal to fund SMART.

The End of the Line for the NWP
The Northwestern Pacific Railroad (NWP) spans approximately 300 miles between Shellville, north of San Pablo Bay, and Arcata, California. Beginning in Healdsburg, the rail line runs directly adjacent to the Russian River, then in Willits it begins a 110 mile stretch through the Eel River Canyon, a Wild and Scenic River and one the most geologically unstable and seismically active areas on earth. The NWP follows the Eel River until it meets with Humboldt Bay, where it is estimated that more than 90% of the saltwater marsh habitat has been lost due to the railroad.

The unstable geology, frequent seismic activity and high rainfall along the route of the NWP make it one of the most illogically placed railroads in the world. The NWP travels at an average distance of only 30 feet from the Eel and Russian Rivers and Humboldt Bay, with its track below the high water mark in many locations. Floods are common in both the Eel and Russian Rivers, and the track is frequently swept away during peak flows. Through the canyons of these rivers, the railroad runs through the "inner gorge" area, which is extremely steep and susceptible to landslides. These steep slopes are cut at the bottom to make a flat surface for the track, which also cuts into the "toe," or bottom, of many landslide features along the route. At many locations the track is laid on top of fill that is placed into the rivers. "The terrain presents steep relief in the Russian and Eel River Canyons. These canyons are up to 3,000 feet deep and the track runs near the river level at the bottom. Slopes are generally 25 to 40 degrees within these canyons with some localized steeper areas where there are nearly vertical sections of up to 100 feet high. The Eel River is incised into the toe of these slopes and there is generally a 30 to 60 foot high bluff (45 degrees or steeper) at the edge of the river. Near Rio Dell, there are 200 to 300 foot-high nearly vertical cliffs…" [URS Greiner Woodward Clyde, 1998]. The geology of the areas along the route of the NWP consists of the "Wildcat Group," "Yager Formation" and "Franciscan Complex," all of which have frequent landslide and other "mass wasting" events. The rocks included in the "chaotic mixture" that make up the Franciscan Complex include "graywacke" material, which is known locally as "blue-goo" because its blue colored soil constantly liquefies and oozes downhill during saturated conditions. Id. The Wildcat Group is found near Scotia and Rio Dell, where there are 200 to 300 foot high rock cliffs that "break along intersecting joints and bedding, forming wedges and toppling blocks that fall onto the tracks. These blocks present a hazard to the railroad and are sometimes large enough to damage the track, embankments, and retaining structures." Id. Slopes with the Yager Formation commonly experience rotational and translational slides, slumps, debris flows, and other types of landslides. Id. The railroad also traverses along and across numerous fault lines, with the primary forces in the region being the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate. Additionally, rainfall in this area can exceed 100 inches in a winter season.

Construction of the NWP was completed in 1914. Its problems started from the very beginning, when it was flooded and wiped out by landslides before it opened, and then when a giant landslide blocked the return of dignitaries to Eureka during the NWP's grand opening event. The railroad has been continuously damaged since this time, constantly closing down because of landslides and other problems. The NWP was owned by Southern Pacific Railroad until the mid-1980's. In 1983 Southern Pacific attempted to abandon the northern portion of the railroad, saying it was costing the company much more to repair and maintain the line than they could make. During administrative proceedings on the abandonment before the Interstate Commerce Commission, the president of Southern Pacific said that it was costing the company an average of $1,000,000 each month to maintain the line between Willits and Eureka, and that the company's losses totaled approximately $70,000,000. Of the abandonment, he stated that "We're not happy being here, but we're so certain there is no possibility of a viable operation that this is the last harrah." The Interstate Commerce Commission denied Southern Pacific's application for abandonment, and Bryan Wipple, a Eureka businessman, purchased the line in 1984. Just two years later, Wipple filed for bankruptcy. The Willits-to-Arcata portion of the line remained under a court-appointed trustee until 1992, when the State of California formed the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) to purchase and manage the NWP. The NCRA has since purchased the entire line from Sonoma County to Arcata. After the NCRA purchased the NWP, the track suffered extensive damage in four of the six years before the Federal Railroad Authority officially closed it in 1998. During the winters of 1993, 1995, 1997 and 1998, "[h]igh water in the Eel River and Outlet Creek washed away railroad embankments along several sections of track. Some culverts and drainage structures under the tracks were blocked with debris, causing failures. Landslides cover the tracks in several locations." Draft Environmental Assessment, January 2000. When the entire line of the NWP was officially closed by the Federal Railroad Authority in 1998, "the FRA had already issued emergency orders on the [railroad] as clearly failing to meet Class I standards." URS Greiner Woodward Clyde 1998.

In addition to landslides, fiscal mismanagement and other problems, the history of the NCRA is replete with violations of the law. At numerous places along the track, hydraulic fluid, diesel fuel and other toxic contaminants are actively leaking into the Eel and Russian Rivers and Humboldt Bay due to negligence on behalf of the NCRA. Water samples have shown these toxic spills are having dire consequences to water quality and aquatic life, with extremely high levels of lead, diesel, fluorene, barium, cadmium, silver, and other toxic chemicals. For example, water samples detected lead, which impacts aquatic creatures at levels as low as 14.0 parts per billion (ppb), at a concentration of 2,900 ppb in Outlet Creek (tributary to the Eel River). The North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board filed numerous clean-up and abatement orders against the NCRA due to these problems, all of which were repeatedly ignored by the NCRA. Other state agencies also took various enforcement actions for the hazardous pollution stemming from the NWP, but the NCRA repeatedly violated the orders issued by these agencies as well and refused to clean up these areas. In 1997, the Department of Fish and Game, the Department of Toxic Substances Control and the Regional Water Quality Control Board filed a lawsuit against the NCRA/NWP for numerous violations of the Fish and Game Code, Health and Safety Code and the Water Code. To settle the suit, the NCRA entered into a consent decree in 1998, giving the court and the people of California their word that they would immediately clean up these sites and take restorative action to address the pollution problems caused by the NWP. However, to this day the NCRA has not taken any steps to stop these problems, even in areas where open containers are overflowing and spilling petroleum products directly into the soil and water. In addition to these water quality violations, the NCRA has also violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and other environmental laws. Early in 2000, the NCRA attempted to circumvent the ESA and the National Environmental Policy Act and carried out illegal "hazing" activities to frighten away bald eagles and other birds. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that reconstructing and operating the railroad will disrupt the nesting activities of the bald eagle. Rather than waiting until after the nesting season for the bird was completed, the NCRA began driving trucks up and down the railroad right-of-way, blasting recorded construction and railroad noises at 90 decibels. Their hope was to drive away all the bald eagles and then wildlife agencies could not say that reconstruction or operating the railroad would harm the listed bird. EPIC sent a letter to the Federal Emergency Management Authority as soon as we became aware of the situation, and threatened court action unless the illegal activities were terminated. Shortly after, FEMA demanded that the NCRA stop the bird hazing and they ceased. Of course, if the NWP is reconstructed and operations begin, habitat along the Eel River will again be lost for the bald eagle and other rare birds.