At an address at the Glens Falls Hospital on October 25th concerning a new cancer study by his administration in Warren County and Upstate New York, Governor Cuomo addressed the recent controversy around storing used out-of-service oil tanker rail cars by Iowa Pacific Holdings on a remote line in the central Adirondack Park. The Governor starkly denounced the plan.
The Governor said: “It is unsightly, it is out of character with the Adirondacks, nobody goes to the Adirondacks to look at old trains, they go there to look at the natural beauty. We don’t own the tracks, there is a question as to what legal right we have to oppose it, but we oppose it 100% and we are going to do everything we can do to stop the owner from storing the trains on those tracks.”
On October 17th, the Saratoga and North Creek Railway, an arm of Iowa Pacific Holdings, of Chicago, Illinois, transported 28 out-of-service oil tanker rail cars through Saratoga and Warren Counties and stored them on a .9-mile section of siding track on the banks of the Boreas River in the Town of Minerva in Essex County. Iowa Pacific leases rail lines in Saratoga and Warren counties, but owns an easement for the Sanford Lake Railway, from North Creek to the Tahawus Mine, in Hamilton and Essex counties. The 28 cars are on a section of track that traverses the Vanderwhacker Mountain Wild Forest area of the Forest Preserve.
Two weeks ago in Warren County, Ed Ellis, the CEO of Iowa Pacific, stated that there was room enough on the Sanford Lake line to store over 2,000 out-of-service rail cars and that he was looking to lease the whole line to eager customers. Ellis has no qualms about a future where a string of 2,000 or more old rail cars lined the Sanford Lake Railway from the Hudson River to the Tahawus Mine. He said the length of time for storage was “indefinite.”
Governor Cuomo’s no-holds-barred statement of opposition to the plans by Iowa Pacific certainly throws cold water on Ellis’s scheme, but the Governor’s comments need to be followed up by real action by Department of Environmental Conservation and Adirondack Park Agency. These agencies need to assert their authority and defend the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve.
Local government leaders have been mixed on the plans by Iowa Pacific, but those in opposition have so far carried the day. A resolution of opposition was passed by the Essex County Board of Supervisors. This resolution was supported by the Warren County Board of Supervisors.
Steve McNally, Supervisor or the Town of Minerva, led the effort to oppose rail car storage at the Essex County Board of Supervisors. “I am very disappointed with the rail car storage on the Sanford Lake line,” McNally stated. “The people of Minerva are very proud of their community and work diligently to preserve our history as well as to maintain our properties. I am very concerned not only of the environmental factors of having these cars sitting in the middle of the Adirondack Park but also the issue if the trains are on the track the potential of having aggregate from Tahawus shipped to market is mute. These cars also will be stored on a dead end line accessible only thru North Creek and most importantly over an aging train trestle over the Hudson River. There are many groups and individuals who work tirelessly to keep the Adirondack Park as the jewel that it is, but I cannot see how storing these cars goes along with this vision.”
Iowa Pacific Holdings has shown that it cares little about neighbors or neighborhoods along the rail lines that it owns or leases. The Chicago Tribune reported on complaints that storage of oil tanker rail cars on Goose Island is undermining economic development as ugly tankers sit in front of businesses, apartment buildings, and residences. In response to complaints, Iowa Pacific said it would move the cars for payment of $275,000. This echoes threats made by Ellis to the Warren County Board of Supervisors where he stated that his company would need to be compensated if he cannot store rail cars as he desires.
Despite its name Iowa Pacific is not a big company. It leases or owns a series of small boutique, dead-end lines around the U.S. akin to the Saratoga to North Creek Railway and the Sanford Lake line. It runs tourist trains and dining cars, but it seems that its best moneymaker is storage of out-of-service rail cars on its dead-end tracks.
Railroad law is complex. In 2011, Protect the Adirondacks filed comments with the Surface Transportation Board in opposition to the operation exemption to allow the Saratoga and North Creek Railway to purchase and operate the Sanford Lake Railway. This was at a time when Iowa Pacific signed its first contracts to lease lines in Warren and Saratoga counties. Prior to Iowa Pacific coming on the scene, the APA had approved a permit to remove the tracks from the Hudson River to the Tahawus Mine, but this plan was abandoned as local and state leaders embraced Iowa Pacific with open arms.
The files for PROTECT’s opposition to the operation of the Sanford Lake Line can be read here and here. They contain the applications, decisions, and all the letters of support from virtually every local and state political leader. What’s interesting is that none of these testimonials say anything about storing rail cars on this line. Nor do any of Iowa Pacific’s documents. In this way, it’s a classic bait and switch operation.
While PROTECT was unsuccessful at blocking the exemption for the Sanford Lake railway, which allowed it to be purchased and operated by Iowa Pacific, the subsequent years have seen the complete failure by the company to haul out materials from the Tahawus Mine or to build successful tourist train businesses in Saratoga or North Creek. 2017 riding levels have been the worst on record.
For its part, Iowa Pacific argues that its management of the lines that it leases and the line that it owns in the Adirondack Park are exempt from state or local laws citing long-established rules under the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) and Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). The first thing to note is that the lease agreements with the Town of Corinth and Warren County do not talk about storing rail cars on those lines. This raises questions about the 22 old railcars that have been stored outside of North Creek on the banks of the Hudson River between the river and Route 28. They’ve been there for more than a year and they have nothing to do with operating a scenic railroad. Warren County should insist that these railcars be removed.
The unique history of the 29.71-mile Sanford Lake line, also called the Tahawus Line, separates it from other rail lines and protections under federal railroad law. The Sanford Lake line was created by an act of eminent domain by the federal government during World War II so that needed minerals could be produced for the war effort. The State of New York, citing Article 14 and the State Constitution, fought the federal government in court and lost. The documents around the condemnation by the federal government and the state’s court cases make it clear that the Sanford Lake line was created for one singular purpose: hauling ilmenite ore from the Tahawus Mine.
This fact is important because while the STB and FRA generally see transporting railcars and storing railcars as legitimate and indistinguishable uses of a railroad, the unique history of the Sanford Lake line raises many important legal questions about whether storage of rail cars is a lawful activity there. Certainly, Iowa Pacific enjoys the rights now to haul materials from the Tahawus Mine, but storing railcars in great numbers is an open question and is something for state agency lawyers to give a hard look.
In other parts of the U.S., local governments have prevailed against railroad companies storing large numbers of railcars in their municipalities by arguing impacts beyond transportation. Storage is different from transporting. In New York, there are questions under the Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act that could impact the places where the Sanford Lake line is part of a designated Rivers Act corridor in both Forest Preserve areas (DEC authority) and private lands (APA authority). Storage of rail cars raises many questions about compliance with the State Land Master Plan where the track runs through the Forest Preserve and questions about compliance with the APA Act where the track runs through private lands. There are other state laws under the Environmental Conservation Law that may apply as well.
Because there are so many open questions about this reckless project that many see as undermining everything the Adirondack Park is all about, it was good news indeed to get words straight from the Governor Cuomo’s mouth that he opposes this plan. To give meaning to the Governor’s words, the APA and DEC now have to tackle Iowa Pacific’s plans head on.
Photo of stored railcars courtesy Protect the Adirondacks.