Stop the junkyard express

A railroad company that three years ago won permission to haul stone from a former mine at the base of the High Peaks has changed course and come up with a breathtakingly bad idea for use of that line. The Saratoga & North Creek Railway says it plans to haul out-of-service oil tanker cars through the Forest Preserve and store them on the rails leading to an abandoned mine in Tahawaus. They would build a stockpile of hazardous, industrial junk in the heart of the Adirondack Park.

A rail company plans to store tanker cars like these in the Adirondacks.
A rail company plans to store tanker cars like these in the Adirondacks.

The cars are the DOT-111 tankers that the federal government has declared unsafe for hauling crude oil. The tankers were involved in a number of catastrophic accidents, including a derailment and explosion that killed forty-seven people in Lac-Megantic in Quebec in 2013. Washington has required that the tankers be modified before they return to service.

According to Ed Ellis, president of S&NC, the owners of a huge number of these tankers need a place to stash them in the hope that regulations will change again and they can put them back on the nation’s rails without being forced to make costly fixes. If the government remains determined to keep these unsafe cars out of service they will eventually be upgraded or cut up for scrap, Ellis told a committee of the Warren County Board of Supervisors.

Ellis, incidentally, was not asking the county for permission. He declared that he has no need for county permission, even though the cars will contain residue of crude oil or ethanol, which will be categorized and marked as hazardous waste. Nor does Ellis believe he needs approval from the state Department of Environmental Conservation or the Adirondack Park Agency. In other words, this is a project that’s underway. He was just informing the county so supervisors can explain to any residents freaked out by tanker trains that it’s OK. They’re empty. The supervisors thought this was fine, and the committee voted to endorse the plan.

(At press time, the state agencies said they didn’t yet know if they would have jurisdiction.)

The Saratoga and North Creek Railway, owned by Iowa Pacific Holdings, operates a tourist train between Saratoga Springs and North Creek, which is popular with local officials, though it loses money. Revenue from tanker storage might strengthen the railroad’s finances and make it possible to continue the tourist train.

Some key points of this new enterprise remain vague. One is exactly how many tankers the company intends to store. Ellis told the committee that it could be three hundred to five hundred. He also said that one hundred cars stretch for about one mile, so by that estimate, stored cars would occupy five miles of siding and main track. But he didn’t place a limit on the number of cars. When a supervisor said that theoretically the company could use twenty-five miles of what’s known as the Sanford Lake Branch of the rail line in Essex County, Ellis said, “That would be a grand slam.”

That leaves the prospect of hundreds upon hundreds of these hulks concentrating on the grounds of the old mine, then stretching south over rails that run through forever-wild Forest Preserve, including the MacIntyre East tract, just acquired by New York State from the Nature Conservancy. The mine sits near the base of Mount Adams and to the southwest of the Great Range. The tracks cross the Opalescent River and parallel the Boreas River and the Hudson River as it flows south from the High Peaks to Newcomb.

Ellis assured the receptive supervisors that the cars pose neither a safety hazard nor an environmental risk. The tankers will have a film of residue on the inside walls from whatever their cargo had been, most likely either crude oil or ethanol, he told them. At most, a few gallons of the hazardous fluid would have pooled at the bottom of each tanker. The rail company would open each car to inspect and drain off waste as needed. Where would this job of hazardous-waste handling and disposal take place? Most likely at the spot where each car is stored, he said. In other words, in the Adirondack industrial junkyard he is creating.

Ellis made no commitment about the length of time the cars would remain in the Adirondacks, though he did say it would be at least a year. Nor did he say how often cars would enter or depart his junkyard. Will there be an ongoing stream of cars going in and out as various owners store, then retrieve their stock to be replaced by others as time goes on?

When the railroad first proposed using the Sanford Lake Branch to carry stone out from the closed mine for use in road construction, the governor, both U.S. senators from New York, and dozens of local governments lined up to support the idea. That boosterism came in spite of strong arguments that the rail line should have been abandoned decades ago because its unique purpose ended after World War II.

The reason the line exists at all is that Washington used eminent domain to take easements across the land, including Forest Preserve. It needed the rail service to carry out ilmenite, an ore of titanium that was used to manufacture armor for the war effort. Following the war, the state argued that the agreement called for the easements across Forest Preserve to expire fifteen years after the war. Instead, the federal government in 1962 extended the easement for another one hundred years.

Now that the railroad has left these public officials looking like patsies, the state and federal governments should assert their authority and exercise some common-sense stewardship of the Park. They need to keep this crackpot scheme from going forward.

Tom Woodman, Publisher

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