The Utah Inland Port Authority worked behind the scenes exploring a secretive proposal to rehabilitate an unused California railroad with the hope of using it to ship Western-mined coal overseas through an out-of-the-way port on the Northern California coast, according to internal documents obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune.

In March, six months before the rail project came to public attention, a Utah port authority staffer named Christopher Mitton participated in a conference call with two coal industry representatives, an administrator from a Northern California tribe and a man named Justin Wight, identified as the “project consultant.” The call’s purpose was to discuss taking over the North Coast Railroad and develop an export terminal at Humboldt Bay. The project would have complete, or at least majority, tribal ownership.

The industry representatives on the call were Conrad “CJ” Stewart, energy director for the Crow Nation, and Utah Mining Association president Brian Somers. The Crow of southeast Montana holds extensive coal reserves in the Powder River Basin. Joining them on the call was Michelle Vassel, tribal administrator for the Wiyot, a federally recognized tribe that is indigenous to Humboldt Bay.

The Wiyot Nation is “fully committed to this project” and the Crow Nation is “looking for any new export channel or new use for their mineral resources,” according to the memo that Mitton sent to Flygare, the port authority’s chief operating officer.

Vassel did not respond to a request for comment left at the Wiyot tribal offices in California. Stewart did not respond to a voicemail left on his cellphone. Somers could not be reached and contact information for Wight was not available.

“There would have to be a massive increase in dredging to create the kinds of depths at the shipping channels and then also to open the entrance year-round,” Kalt said. Meanwhile, the facilities on the site, all associated with Humboldt’s faded timber industry, are in no shape for handling mass volumes of coal or other bulk mineral commodities.

But one remains in fairly good condition and occupies the harbor’s deepest water, she said. It’s a privately owned facility called the Fairhaven Terminal, where the water is 38 feet deep and there are five acres of paved storage. A message left for that terminal’s owner, Eureka businessman Rob Arkley, was not returned.

The Inland Port memo indicates the bay has existing federal shipping channels that would work for exporting minerals. Wight identified terminals on the north side of Humboldt Bay that could be used for loading ships and are not close to environmentally sensitive areas.

“Both Justin [Wight] and Michelle [Vassel] stated there is strong local support for revitalizing the harbor and port operations,” the memo said. “Michelle mentioned she would expect some, but not overwhelming opposition to the project.”

Vassel could have hardly been more wrong in this assessment.

“No way, no how are we going to let this happen,” said Sen. McGuire in unveiling key additions to his SB307 on Tuesday.

The legislation would ban any state funding from being used to improve the northern half of the rail line for coal shipments north and from being used to build a coal handling terminal at Humboldt Bay.

Read More