Governor Andrew Cuomo is opposed to storing empty tank-cars on tracks in the Adirondacks. His state agencies have raised questions about it. Environmental groups are strongly against it.
So what can they do about it?
Iowa Pacific Holdings, the company storing the cars, contends that the federal government has jurisdiction over railroads and therefore the state can’t stop it.
But Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, disagrees.
Woodworth, who is a lawyer, concedes that a state cannot interfere with railroad transportation, but he says storing tank cars has nothing to do with transportation.
“Storing railroad cars indefinitely is certainly not promoting railroad transportation—especially on the main line; it’s the exact opposite,” Woodworth said.
To date, Iowa Pacific has moved more than fifty tank cars onto a siding along the Boreas River in the town of Minerva. Woodworth estimates that the siding could accommodate about 230 cars. Any more would have to be stored on the main line—which Woodworth says would open the door to a legal challenge under Article 14, the clause of the state constitution mandating that the Forest Preserve “be forever kept as wild forest lands.”
We’ll get to that legal theory in a moment (it involves some complicated history), but what if Iowa Pacific stores cars only on the siding? Could the state take steps now to force the company to remove the cars?
Woodworth thinks so.
Wild, Scenic, and Recreational Rivers System Act
Aerial photos posted by the Explorer show that the tank cars are sitting near the Boreas River, which is classified by the state as a Scenic River. The Wild, Scenic, and Recreational Rivers Act requires landowners to obtain a permit for any “new land use” in designated river corridors.
Woodworth contends that storing tank cars on the siding constitutes a new use within the Boreas corridor and thus requires a permit from the Adirondack Park Agency. Furthermore, he asserted that the APA could deny the permit for railcar storage.
“It’s a business activity that is not consistent with the character and protection of the natural resources of the river corridor,” he said.
Like other critics, Woodworth likens the storage of empty tank cars to a “junkyard.” He described the cars as “obsolete” and noted that Iowa Pacific intends to store them indefinitely. “They are being sent off to the graveyard to just sit there,” he said.
No doubt Iowa Pacific would take issue with that characterization. Ed Ellis, the company’s president, said the cars will be stored only until they’re returned to service or scrapped—but he hasn’t said how long that will be.
“We hope they are in storage for a long time, as the revenue provides financial support for maintaining the line,” Ellis told Warren County officials in an email this month.
Ellis also has said that Iowa Pacific may store up to two thousand cars on the rail line. This would require more than twenty miles of track, meaning the company would have to use the main tracks for storage.
Woodworth said this raises legal questions relating to Article 14. To understand them, we first need to review a little history.
The federal government established the thirty-mile rail line during World War II to ship titanium ore from a mine in Tahawus. The corridor crossed thirteen miles of Forest Preserve as well as private land. Using its power of eminent domain, the government acquired an easement set to expire in 1962. The corridor then was supposed to revert to its original owners, including New York State. Instead, the General Services Administration used eminent domain to extend the easement for another hundred years, until 2062.
In 1989, GSA sold the easement to NL Industries, the owner of the mine. Several years ago, NL sold it to Iowa Pacific. Woodworth said the easement specifies that if the line ceases to be operated as a railroad, the corridor must be returned to its original owners.
When Iowa Pacific acquired the line, it hoped to transport waste rock from the mine, but so far the company has been unable to find customers. If it clogs the line with empty cars, Woodworth said, it will be impossible to use it for transportation. In essence, he contends, the line will cease to be a railroad—in violation of the easement.
In fact, the corridor has not been an active railroad for many years. Woodworth said he’d like the state to initiate condemnation proceedings to reclaim its Forest Preserve lands. (The siding is on Forest Preserve.) If the tracks were removed, he said, the corridor could be converted into a recreational trail.
“It could become one of the premier rail trails in the Northeast because of the beauty of the area,” he said.
The Friends of the Upper Hudson Rail Trail has been advocating this for years.
Ellis said the tank cars were emptied, cleaned, and inspected and pose no threat to the environment. Even if that’s the case, Woodworth insists the cars don’t belong in the Adirondack Park, a vacation destination celebrated for its wild character. “It shouldn’t be used as a junkyard for derelict railroad cars,” he said.
Iowa Pacific owns the Saratoga and North Creek Railway, a tourist train that runs between Saratoga Springs and North Creek on other tracks, leased from Warren County and the town of Corinth. The tracks where the company wants to store tank cars are located north of North Creek.