It seems that several of the most important issues in the Adirondack Park concern trains and railroads. On the Adirondack railroad between Utica and Lake Placid, the state is appealing a judge’s ruling that blocked an effort to remove the tracks and ties between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake in order to create a thirty-four-mile multi-use rail trail between the communities.
Another rail controversy also continues as the Chicago-based railroad company, the Iowa Pacific, is beginning to store obsolete tanker cars on a section of railroad line commonly called the Tahawus line or the Sanford Spur.
The story of this rail line, and how it has come to be a junkyard for USDOT 111 rail cars, which normally carry crude oil, has many twists. This nearly thirty-mile stretch of track runs from just north of North Creek, crossing the Hudson River at the confluence of the Boreas River and continuing north in the Boreas River corridor to terminate at the old National Lead (NL) mine at Tahawus. The railroad crosses 13 miles of state-owned Forest Preserve.
The Tahawus line was built on private and public land that was condemned by the federal government by means of wartime eminent domain in 1942 so that ore containing titanium oxide could be shipped from Tahawus to processing plants elsewhere in the country. Because the Forest Preserve has a special status under the Forever Wild clause of the state constitution, the federal government did not condemn full ownership of the railroad’s one-hundred–foot right-of-way (ROW), but was granted a temporary easement for the duration of World War II, plus fifteen years. In addition, use of the railroad was limited to the “transport of strategic materials vital to the war effort.”
By 1962, titanium was no longer strategic and the federal government’s Office of War Production, now replaced by the General Services Administration, sought to sell the “temporary easement” for the ROW and tracks. It persuaded the Federal Court in Albany to extend the temporary easement for one hundred years, to 2062, then leased the easement to NL in 1989. The last load of processed ore left the mine by rail in 1982, but waste rock for road fill left the mine by rail until 1989 when all ore or tailings rock hauling operations ceased on the Tahawus line.
In 2011 the Iowa Pacific, doing business as the Saratoga and North Creek Railroad (SNCRR), acquired the Tahawus ROW and rails, intending to operate a tourist train over the 29.71 miles of the Tahawus line. Passenger service on the Tahawus line never happened. The SNCRR made one unsuccessful attempt to transport rock from Tahawus in early 2017. Edward Ellis, president of Iowa Pacific, told the Public Works Committee of the Warren County Board of Supervisors that the railroad needed a new source of revenue to pay for track maintenance on the corridor between Saratoga and North Creek. He proposed entering into contracts with the owners of obsolete USDOT 111 oil tankers to store large numbers of these railroad cars on the Tahawus line. He explained that the number of railroad cars to be stored might be between 1000 and 2000. Ellis claimed the cars had been cleaned internally and did not pose a hazard to the environment.
By early November 2017, the Iowa Pacific had started moving USDOT 111 oil tankers to the 13 miles of track crossing the Vanderwhacker Wild Forest of the Forest Preserve. As of November 4, fifty-three oil tankers had been stored on a siding about four miles north of the Hudson River. The Tahawus line has only 2.97 miles of siding, which we estimate could store between 230 and 250 tank cars. In order to store any more tank cars, and especially 1000 cars, the SNCRR would have to block the single track main line, thereby preventing any freight or passenger trains from operating between Tahawus and North Creek.
The Adirondack Park is no place to store obsolete oil tank cars. We believe that any storage of cars on the main line would violate the purpose of the original condemnation, abandoning the operation of the Tahawus line as a means of transporting processed titanium ore. We believe the state Attorney General could sue to force a reversion of the condemned rail ROW and return it to the Adirondack Forest Preserve. It is our position that the storage of derelict rail cars in the scenic river corridor of the Boreas River violates the rules and regulations of New York State’s Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act. The SNCRR may claim that federal law preempts state law, but if the Tahawus railroad is choked closed with 1000 rail cars, it is no longer connected to or part of interstate commerce, a fundamental basis for federal preemption. Article XIV of the state constitution would then trump any claim of federal preemption.
A 2014 decision of the Federal Surface Transportation Board (an independent adjudicatory and economic-regulatory agency that resolves railroad disputes and reviews proposed railroad mergers) ruled that a section of railroad line that was no longer connected to or capable of being used for interstate commerce was held to be subject to state law prohibiting storage of rail cars and not governed by federal preemption. With rail transport on the Tahawus line blocked by the storage of rail cars on the main line, the original purpose of the federal easement to transport ore is precluded, therefore there is no federal preemption and Article XIV’s commandment that “no lands of the Forest Preserve shall be sold, exchanged or taken by any corporation, public or private” would prevail and mandate that the temporary easement and ROW for the Tahawus Railway be extinguished and revert to the Adirondack Forest Preserve.
We believe there are several strong legal arguments against the creation and maintenance of a junkyard of obsolete oil tank cars in the Forest Preserve. ADK is not alone in this belief. In addition to the other three Adirondack advocacy groups, the Essex County and Warren County Boards of Supervisors have passed a resolution opposing rail car storage on the Tahawus line. Governor Andrew Cuomo has also deplored the Iowa Pacific plan. It may be that the best resolution of this issue would be for the state to buy out the remainder of the temporary easement from the Iowa Pacific/SNCRR and restore the railroad ROW to the Forest Preserve.
This story and more coming soon in the January-February edition of the Adirondac available the end of December. Members can view the magazine in their Members Area on the website. Non-members can purchase the magazine in our online shop.