By Michael Virtanen
New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation has asked federal authorities to declare the 30-mile rail line from North Creek to the former Tahawus mine in the central Adirondacks abandoned.
In an application to the Surface Transportation Board filed Sept. 10, New York officials said the line has no active shippers and the owner has “no reasonable prospect for developing future freight service.” That permits a federal finding of abandonment under the test of “public convenience and necessity,” the DEC said.
Calls by the Adirondack Explorer to the attorney and president of Iowa Pacific Holdings, Chicago-based parent company of Saratoga and North Creek Railway, which owns the line, were not returned Thursday.
However, Denver-based railroad operators and developers have shown interest in buying the line and conducting freight service, while the current owner has removed its trains and nearly all equipment.
OmniTRAX, which operates freight lines in other parts of the U.S., has 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,” said company Vice President David Argenbright. He declined to say on Friday how long that period is.
Matt Simpson, Horicon supervisor and Warren County Public Works Committee chairman, said OmniTRAX also has expressed interest in acquiring the 40-mile rail line from North Creek south to Saratoga that the county owns. The municipality is in the process of drafting a bid request for the lease or sale of its line, he said.
“The information that’s contained in that (abandonment) filing, it doesn’t reflect what’s currently happening,” Simpson said.
It 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 storage of up to 2,000 unused tankers and other cars on the Tahawus line by current owner 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 then 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.
“There is no interpretation of the Forever Wild Clause (of New York’s Constitution) that would permit SNCR or any actor, public or private, to construct what would be tantamount to a 30-mile rusting steel wall through the heart of the Adirondack Park,” the DEC told the federal board. “Not only would such a use render the single-tracked line utterly useless for freight transportation, it would be anathema to the conservation purposes for which the Forest Preserve was established.”
Meanwhile, some conservationists have proposed turning that corridor into a rail trail for recreational use.
New York’s abandonment application doesn’t specifically call for that. However, 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 earlier this year 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.
An analysis filed by Mitchell with the state earlier this year said rail shipping was too expensive currently to use it to reach more lucrative markets in New York City and Long Island. However, owner Paul Mitchell has said that could change in the future.
“That’s exactly what we’re evaluating, whether we can make that market now work,” Arganbright said. He noted that the ethanol and crude oil that freight lines were hauling heavily a few years ago have declined. “Markets are dynamic and they change,” he said.
Saratoga and North Creek Railway acquired the line in 2011 and proposed freight service for Tahawus and the Barton mine in North River and also began a tourist train from Saratoga Springs to North Creek. The tourist train shut down this year.
Ed Ellis, president of Iowa Pacific, told Warren County officials that he needed the income from storing cars on the line until the freight business took hold.
New York officials noted that the rail line also faced a $1.3 million federal tax lien as well as $100,000 of property taxes owed to Warren and Essex counties.
OmniTRAX doesn’t currently operate passenger service, but it would consider offering it under contract, Arganbright said. “We’re not really interested in directly being a passenger operator.”