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Friday, March 22, 2019

DEC requests another hold on rail line abandonment

By MICHAEL VIRTANEN

New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation has asked federal authorities to put an additional 60-day hold on its request to declare the 30-mile rail line from North Creek to the former Tahawus mine in the central Adirondacks abandoned, saying talks continue for the possible takeover by a new freight operator.

The DEC on March 21 asked the Surface Transportation Board continue to hold its application in abeyance, noting the potential buyer would file an update confirming ongoing negotiations.

Attorneys for the potential buyer then told the federal board in a filing Friday that they remain in talks with the DEC to resolve issues about storing rail cars on the line, which prompted the abandonment application. The company “remains hopeful” they will reach an agreement, facilitating the acquisition with DEC’s support and an OmniTRAX subsidiary restoring freight operations, they wrote.

Last Sept. 10, New York officials requested an abandonment finding by the federal board, saying the line had no active shippers and the owner, Iowa Pacific, had “no reasonable prospect for developing future freight service.” That status permits a federal finding of abandonment under the test of “public convenience and necessity,” the DEC said.

Since then, the Denver-based railroad operators and developers expressed interest in taking over, while the current owner last year removed its trains and nearly all equipment. Attorneys for both railroads told the board they “remain committed to achieving mutually acceptable terms” that will result in a board-authorized sale of the line and the DEC withdrawing its abandonment application.

OmniTRAX, which operates freight lines in other parts of the U.S., has had an agreement with Iowa Pacific “for exclusive negotiation for a period of time to see if the two parties can reach an understanding about purchasing it,” company Vice President David Argenbright said last year.  He declined to say how long that period is.

On Oct. 16, the state cited the ongoing talks and a letter from OmniTRAX, saying it would enter a binding agreement with the DEC not to store rail cars on the line long-term in exchange for the department dropping its abandonment application. 

The DEC abandonment filing noted that the state has added nearly 70,000 acres of wildlands since 2012 that either lie along or would be accessible from the line, which “could represent an unparalleled opportunity to provide public access to some of the Adirondack Park’s most beautiful wild spaces.”

According to the DEC filing, suggested that storage of up to 2,000 unused tankers and other cars on the Tahawus line by Iowa Pacific, which would go into part of New York’s forest preserve, “requires” a federal abandonment finding. Dozens of cars were stored there last winter and removed in the spring after state authorities objected. About half the track runs through state-owned backcountry to the privately owned mine, New York’s filing said.

New York’s abandonment application doesn’t specifically call for public use. Still, it references “low-impact recreational use — principally hiking, camping, canoeing, horseback riding and bicycling” in similarly classified areas of the forest preserve and says the state and municipalities  “should be free to plan for future uses of the line” that are complementary.

The Tahawus mine began producing titanium during World War II but ceased operations in 1989. The property was bought by Mitchell Stone Products in Tupper Lake, which sells crushed stone from the mine tailings for construction, trucking it to local municipalities and other buyers in the region.

Michael Virtanen

Michael Virtanen joined the Adirondack Explorer staff in March, asked to take an in-depth look at certain places, issues and unanswered questions in the Adirondack Park. He worked previously as a correspondent for the Associated Press in Morgantown, West Virginia, and at the Capitol in Albany for the wire service and for daily newspapers in Albany, Utica and Amsterdam, N.Y. He had been an occasional free-lance contributor to the Explorer and went on some outings with then-Editor Phil Brown, who once led him up the popular rock climb Pete’s Farewell on Pitchoff Chimney Cliff overlooking the Cascade lakes and Route 73 outside Lake Placid.

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