Sunday, October 29, 2017

Forest Preserve Oil Cars And Iowa Pacific Intentions

stored tanker carsI have a history of missing the big picture. When I see that a cleaning product “kills 99.9 percent of household germs,” instead of being comforted I worry about that one tenth of 1 percent. What’s that germ got? And will it destroy us all?

So I might be missing a perfectly logical reason why the Chicago-based Iowa Pacific Holdings LLC would think it a good idea to junk 2,000 flaking old oil tankers in the heart of the Adirondacks, where hikers and fishermen are seeking natural and spiritual repast, not a chain of rolling testaments to a (nearly) bygone era of dirty energy.

You wonder how this is this even possible in a land where, to hear some people tell it, you can’t even look at a spruce sideways, and the regulators sit around just waiting for you to commit some overt act that they can take you to court for.

Suppose, for example, I have a big field surrounded by Adirondack forestland adjacent to a pristine river. And I also happen to own 2,000 1972 Oldsmobile Delta 88s that need to chill out for a while, until the demand for ugly, poorly crafted automobiles that burn leaded gasoline and get three miles to the gallon picks back up. Could I do that? Even though the railroad claims it has federal protections, I don’t see much difference between the two.

Iowa Pacific controls a number of short-line railroads around the country (but, oddly enough, not in Iowa) including one that terminates more or less at a mountain of tailings at the old Tahawus mines in the vicinity of the Upper Works trailhead to Flowed Lands and the High Peaks. The original idea, should you choose to believe it, was to haul the tailings down south where someone, like Rumpelstiltskin, would spin the rocky residue into some kind of valuable commodity.

Since the mere words “economic development” send everyone into such spasms of orgasmic joy, no one seems to have done a background check using a little thing I like to call the Internet — because if they had, they would have seen that Iowa Pacific has more red flags fluttering in the breeze than the Kremlin. There is a history there of promises unfulfilled.

Iowa Pacific President Ed Ellis, bless his heart, says this was all an innocent, organic business decision for an American company looking to make a buck. OK Casey Jones, anything you say. But here’s the problem: What American businessman of sound mind goes out and buys control of an entire rail spur leading to a heap of mining waste in the middle of the howling wilderness before he knows for an absolute, petrified fact that the waste does indeed have a profitable use?

It’s not like people are lining up down at the mall to buy mine tailings. So with something this tenuous, you have to be sure that you have a cost-efficient market for the material, and you do that first before you arrange for transport.

If that’s really your intention.

But two things are suspicious: One, Iowa Pacific has said it will refrain from warehousing oil tankers in the Adirondacks in exchange for a tidy little cash payout; and two, a very similar scenario is playing out in Chicago where a neighborhood looking to redevelop suddenly found itself with a bunch of junky rail cars parked in its kitchen — and the same offer from Iowa Pacific to go away if the price is right.

Nor did Iowa Pacific just wake up one morning to learn that its track ran through a jealously guarded forest preserve, where people would be outraged at any attempt to turn it into a salvage yard. When you look over the list of Iowa Pacific holdings (including in Lubbock, Tex., where the joke is that it’s so flat that on a clear day you can see the back of your head) it is difficult to think that the company has no other choice but to store its junk in the Adirondacks.

So for all the world it appears as if Iowa Pacific is running a Henry Gondorff-style con, parking junk cars where they’re most likely to raise a fuss and offering to move them for cash, leaving open the opportunity to move them to some other community that will be equally offended, where the cycle can be repeated.

The only strike against that conspiracy theory is that American heavy industry just doesn’t seem that clever anymore. Instead of striding confidently into the future, like Germany, China, et. al., our corporate giants sit around pining for the salad days of oil and coal. Instead of melting their carbon-carrying rail cars down for scrap, they park them dismally on worn out sidings, like that pair of jeans with the 32-inch waist that you can’t bear to throw out because, you know, someday you may fit back into them.

I trust that this will all work out, that before long these old rusty relics will be parked elsewhere. But if not, perhaps 500 years from now anthropologists sifting through the forest duff will discover the decaying remains of a 20-mile chain of oxidizing steel, and after much discussion they will conclude that, due to its incredible size, the monolith must have been central to some major religion, and that the people worshiped these iron gods and filled their cavernous holdings with tribute as the high priests grew fat on the riches earned off the trusted allegiance of their simple and trusting followers.

And these anthropologists will not be far from the truth.

Photo of stored tanker cars courtesy Protect the Adirondacks.

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Tim Rowland is a humor columnist for Herald-Mail Media in Hagerstown, Md., and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include High Peaks; A History of Hiking the Adirondacks from Noah to Neoprene and Strange and Unusual Stories of New York City. He has climbed the 46 high peaks, is an avid bicyclist, and trout tremble with fear when they see his approaching shadow. He and his wife Beth are residents of Jay, N.Y.

37 Responses

  1. Terry Barber says:

    Good piece, Tim!
    I can’t agree more with your thoughts.
    I hope the governor intervenes soon to rid us of these dangers / eye-sores!

    • Paul says:

      Can he? In his remarks the other day he made it sound like the RR has the jurisdiction here. I don’t see any recourse that the state or anyone else has?

      Seems to me as ugly as they are the RR probably has the legal right to have RR cars on its RR. If the state or others don’t want to have the RR acting like a RR, then they should pay for what the company could get. That isn’t extortion it is keeping a fiduciary duty that the company has to its shareholders (its owners).

  2. Boreas says:

    Great article!!

  3. Ed Burke says:

    When my father retired from the D&H railroad he had 45 years and the longest term of service in the company. In April I took an Amtrak Rail Pass trip of almost 7000 miles, loved every minute. Twice I’ve taken the S&NC train with my touring bicycle to North Creek to start rides. Done the soft coal black-belching cog railway on Mt. Washington several times.

    I love railroads.

    But let me add there is no way in hell that old rail cars should be parked on unused track in the heart of the Adirondacks. It’s rolling scrap and the state knows it. Iowa Pacific’s plans when they bought the line had nothing to do with making money on Santa Claus trains which are just a convenient ‘happy face’ for a company that has also has plans to bring radioactive waste from Niskayuna to Corinth for shipment to Texas. There’s some Google map pretzel logic. NY State, DEC and APA need to step up here.

    Ed Burke
    Saratoga Springs

  4. Mitch Edelstein says:


    I’ve definitely have some of those someday jeans in my closet.

    I don’t think this is a Gondorff scheme, it’s more of make noise next to a movie set shooting in the streets of NY. They want a payoff.

  5. Ginny wickersham says:

    Who in their right mind would think this is a good thing for the Adirondacks! The sooner this is resolved the better. The Adirondack Park should never be a dumping ground.

  6. Ron Konowitz says:

    Great Story Tim !

  7. John says:

    Warren County, citing Iowa Pacific’s many failures to pay fees, should cancel the contract and let the courts take their time sorting it out. Then the supervisors should take a course in how to read a legal document so they do not again sign a lease like this one.

    Nice commentary , Tim.

  8. Kyle says:

    “Iowa Pacific has said it will refrain from warehousing oil tankers in the Adirondacks in exchange for a tidy little cash payout; and two, a very similar scenario is playing out in Chicago where a neighborhood looking to redevelop suddenly found itself with a bunch of junky rail cars parked in its kitchen — and the same offer from Iowa Pacific to go away if the price is right.”

    Just a little friendly extortion from the nice folks in Corporate America. How is it there haven’t been federal charges yet?

    The state should activate the national guard to clear this toxic debris before it causes irreparable harm to a priceless natural resource and charge the company for the expense.

  9. jack says:

    The ethical dishonesty of this writer is appalling. Trees and views are more important than jobs and non-invasive storage of passive railcars? On existing track — no disruption of environment or habitat. I guess that if he thinks it is so important, he had better pay up. Alot. Better to relieve a fool of his money than sit there and watch him writhe in agony. For God’s sake! Screw your head on.

    • laurie says:

      Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! Anything goes for the false promise of jobs! What jobs are created by rusting hulks of metal rotting away in the forest preserve? Iowa Pacific will either get their ransom, line executive pockets, and move the trains to the next best (worst) place to store them to do it all over again, or declare bankruptcy in a year or two and leave the mess for taxpayers to clean up.

    • Boreas says:

      They will generate more jobs in a scrap yard cutting them up and/or recycling them than rusting on a side track. Then add even more jobs building modern ones. These cars aren’t exactly going to become collector’s items in 20 years. Many are already obsolete.

      • Paul says:

        They are already building the new ones, those jobs are filled. I wish I had bought some stock in those firms. Regulations like that can be a windfall for investors.

        This isn’t really a jobs issue – it’s a bottom line issue for the company. Clearly they feel pressure from their stockholders to do whatever they can to improve the BL.

        Talk to the shareholders they can probably talk the management out of this. Despite what some think here companies actually often want to do the right thing.

  10. Dick Carlson says:

    No disruption of environment or habitat? The oil cars become a defacto Fence 1 mile, 2 miles wide – Deer and Moose won’t go “through” the cars – but around. What’s the impact of that? The railroad has violated their contract with Warren County on numerous occasions – not enough trains on schedule, no events, etc. Time to move on – Revolution Rail is doing a “land office business” on the same line. Have someone purchase the Tahawus Line from SNCRR – Rev Rail leases and expansion would pay the bill.

  11. Neal says:

    The tank cars are not junk, they are surplus. If the tank cars were junk they would have scrapped not stored. I am not sure of the scrap value of each car but it is over $10,000.

  12. Phil Brown says:

    More tank cars arrived today (Monday). Adirondack Explorer has video. Read story here:

    • Paul says:

      Thanks. Phil, in your story you haver this:

      “Iowa Pacific contends that the state has no jurisdiction over its railroad.”

      What did your reporting find? Is this contention correct?

    • Paul says:

      Thanks. Phil, in your story you have this:

      “Iowa Pacific contends that the state has no jurisdiction over its railroad.”

      What did your reporting find? Is this contention correct? In his remarks the gov seemed to back this up?

  13. James Falcsik says:

    I was was finding myself in agreement with most commenting here; perhaps Ed Ellis is a scoundrel that is looking for an unscrupulous way to make a fast buck. It seems Mr. Ellis is forgetting good will between a company doing business in the community where it resides does have value.

    I am not sure of the motivation being anything more than business as usual; certainly nothing close to extortion. The railroad’s plans for hauling carloads of mine refuse did not work out, so car storage contracts in the railroad world are common and a good revenue stream for surplus trackage. As for good will, Mr. Ellis surely did not pick a location where nobody would notice. He probably should find another location to store the tank cars.

    However, there may be another reason Iowa Pacific has decided to bring the tank cars to the North Country. I looked into the Chicago situation that others have referenced. It seems one of the opponents, a sizable developer, Sterling Bay, has plans for Iowa Pacific’s property:

    “…redevelopment of the Finkl site (steel mill), which it is calling Lincoln Yards, includes a plan to extend The 606 elevated trail east across the river and create other parks and recreational space”…. How about that; another bike trail project.

    “Freight rail activity, including rail car storage, is incompatible with the city of Chicago’s recently adopted North Branch Industrial Corridor Framework Plan and with Sterling Bay’s vision for Lincoln Yards,” Sterling Bay said in an emailed statement. “We have initiated the required steps for federal approval of the abandonment of freight service on rail lines operated by Chicago Terminal Railroad in the North Branch corridor area.”

    So the very pompous developer as decided to try and file an abandonment proceeding against a railroad that owns the property they fancy. Wow.

    So, perhaps Ed Ellis has decided he will put to good use what is rightfully Iowa Pacific’s and make a statement against those wishing to “take” the property in Chicago. Is he doing the same thing with SNCR?

    • Tony Goodwin says:


      Don’t you think Ed Ellis should have researched the potential markets for his for his crushed stone and the rates for the other railroads for an actual delivered price before he purchased those 29 miles of rails? It does not appear that he did, so maybe this car storage scheme was his plan all along. In any event, I don’t think his attempt to “extort” a “seven figure” annual payment from Warren County is anything any dedicated railroader would want to support.

      • James Falcsik says:

        Tony; I don’t know why Iowa Pacific purchased the subject railroad line. Was the business potential in the stone market only, or did he see other opportunities? Sometimes branch lines or spurs sit for along time waiting for investment, as long as other parts of the company are producing revenue.

        I do not think Ed Ellis made a good choice of where to store these tank cars, if it is only about storing the cars and common revenue. If he wants to extend any kind of good will to the communities in order to support his tourist operation, his use of this line to store tank cars is bewildering to me.

        As far as i know, a railroad does not make any money moving empty cars; they will need to be there for a certain length of time to make a ROI from the overhead move. I understand why you see Ellis as an underhanded businessman. If he first would have said to Warren County, “my back is against the wall and I can make a few bucks on this line storing railroad cars until something else develops…can we negotiate?..would that have made a difference? I don’t know, but I sure don’t expect many folks would feel any different.

  14. Boreas says:

    It seems to me the most logical solution to the problem would be for the state to purchase the last section of the line – which IP may me suggesting(?) – say from the last village to the mine. Whether they leave the tracks idle waiting for WWIII to reopen the mine or pave over or remove the tracks entirely and make a recreation trail, it would at least give the state control of this contentious portion of the line. Since this section runs through a recreation area within the Forest Preserve, an outright purchase could provide for a more cohesive management plan in the area as well as minimizing the remaining industrial character of the mine infrastructure.
    IP would then still have the option of storing cars on sidings on the remaining southern portion of their line, while keeping open the option for excursion trains or rail-bike ventures terminating in a nice village instead of an idle mine.

    • Boreas says:

      IF the state bought the spur outright or at least came to an agreement to halt locomotive use/storage beyond N. Creek, another interesting option for the spur to Tahawus would be to set it up for a rail-bike venture only – possibly including a seasonal shuttle to the Upper Works trailhead. Or, if the rails are removed or paved over, a multi-user trail all the way to the Upper Works trailhead, or the old ghost town of Adirondac.

      If indeed IP has financial difficulties, perhaps NYS should be looking at this as an opportunity to regain some control over at least the final spur to Tahawus.

  15. Keith Gorgas says:

    Obviously there are two sides to this story, and it would be nice to read a really balanced, informative researched article that gives both sides of the story.

    If the tank cars are truly cleaned out, I’d like to see them filled with water and dispersed around the country to dry places that need water for irrigation or fire suppression.

    • Boreas says:


      What we don’t know is what is considered “cleaned”. I would assume it wouldn’t provide a container for potable water, and perhaps not even clean enough for irrigation, but I like the fire or even dust suppression possibilities. However, that would likely require moving them near road access. Even so, this would require permission from and likely payment to the owners/lessors of the tankers.

  16. Charlie S says:

    Dick Carlson says: “The oil cars become a defacto Fence 1 mile, 2 miles wide – Deer and Moose won’t go “through” the cars – but around.”

    Reminds me of the wall the neo kook Trump has been devising to build on the Mexico border. What about the migration of animals? Nobody seems to be talking about this!

  17. Charlie S says:

    laurie says, in response to Jack: “Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! Anything goes for the false promise of jobs!

    > Fools come a dime a dozen laurie. The powers that be know this. They threw out “jobs” during the fracking debate if you remember so as to get fools to bite. It didn’t work that time but you watch they’ll keep throwing out “jobs” as we keep losing more and more of our heritage all so that a few pockets can be filled while thousand-lots of fools can be duped. Anybody who thinks that jobs are more important than trees is clearly short-sighted.

  18. Charlie S says:

    Ed Ellis, President of Iowa Pacific says, ” the tank cars have been emptied and cleaned and pose no threat to the environment.”

    > Except that they are an eyesore at the very least. Construction of new developments or homes in scenic or historic areas have been petitioned and stopped due to the very same reason.

    • Billie Jo Lear says:

      And this is the exact opposite of what he has already stated ON THE RECORD which you can find online. He stated before this that they had a lining of oil and some of them had a mix of chemicals in them which he was not sure what they were. They have been labeled as hazardous by the Federal Government BECAUSE of this. I love he continues to change his story!

  19. Billie Jo Lear says:

    Thank you! I have been saying this from the beginning. In fact, my search of the internet shows he is doing this same extortion tactic already on Goose Island and in Santa Cruz. Don’t like our tankers? Then pay us to move them. Meanwhile he is not paying is bills to the locals in any of these places. This man is a criminal of times gone by. It is time to show him the door the old fashioned way! Get out your check books and let us pay off his bills and in Corinth cutting off his ability to bring in anymore! This man needs to return to the Mob he came from. Casey Jones…ha! 😉 Great piece!

  20. Jim McCulley says:

    When will government officials and rail fans just admit the obvious. tourist rains will never survive in the Adirondacks. And it’s time to remove the tracks on all of these government supported lines. Rail Trails on this and Remsen Lake Placid make the most sense for the region. The tourist railroad experiment is over. It failed lets move on.

  21. Tim Eklund says:

    The well-intentioned comments from the uninformed…

    Operating railroads have protections provided to them on the federal level due to their role in interstate commerce. Folks may not “like” the fact that rail cars are parked in a scenic area…I can understand that, but there’s precious little anyone can do UNLESS the agreement that Iowa Pacific has with Warren County expressly prohibits parking rail cars.

    State can’t come in, Feds can’t come in…folks can protest ’til the cows come home, but unless the County changes the terms of their agreement with Iowa Pacific, or unless the cars stored on the rail line create an environmental hazard, they can sit as long as they want to.

    The author of this article, Mr. Rowland, claims a siomple internet search by Iowa Pacific would have revealed that the commercial viability of the tailings pile at the end of the line would have revealed there was no commercial viability for the product. Had Mr. Rowland performed the same internet search regarding the rights accorded to common carrier railroads, he would have found that there was nothing really that could be done.

    Every day, freight railroads move millions of tons of products used by the nation. They move these products thru some of the most scenic and protected areas of the country. An Inconvenient Truth to tree huggers and owl kissers everywhere, but a basic fact of life.

    Folks want the cars moved, then tell Warren County to change their contract….or pay Iowa Pacific.

    • Boreas says:

      “Folks want the cars moved, then tell Warren County to change their contract….or pay Iowa Pacific.”


      I believe both Warren and Essex counties are working on just that. Both counties have voted that they oppose the storage ‘plan’ – a big first step. Essex county’s vote was quite close. I am sure the state and both counties are looking at their options, which is going to take time to sort out. In the meantime many of us will continue to voice our opposition regardless of the name-calling. Another fact of life.

      • Paul says:

        The votes don’t really matter. What matters is the law and what they can do. The contract has clear terms. It looks like here the town the county and the state don’t have much recourse – hence all the RR cars.

    • David P Lubic says:

      Railroads not only move cars through scenic and wilderness areas–but through large cities and towns, too.

      This brings up perhaps what should be a more important question.

      Why do we need or want these products in the first place?

      Some, such as the Bakken oil, power our transportation system. Others, such as chlorine, treat our tapwater. We use these products and many others. To use them, they must be transported from where they are to where they are needed.

      For that job, railroads are the most efficient and safest way to do so. Keep in mind that a railroad normally has to pay all its bills, pay a profit, and pay taxes, too, including property taxes on its right of way. The highway, air transport, and trail systems are all given passes on all of those items.

      The alternative would be more expensive truck transport on subsidized roads–more traffic congestion, more road wear, more fuel consumption (and its related pollution), and more accidents and spills than we already have.

      This is not a new situation. Check out this movie from the 1950s, starting at around 13:00. The loss of so much of the rail system was not due to natural economic factors.