I 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.