Empty rail cars roll into Adirondacks, stirring controversy

'It is unsightly,' Cuomo says
Empty train cars from the Midwest are stored on unused tracks in the Adirondacks near Minerva on Oct. 25, 2017.
Empty train cars from the Midwest are stored on unused tracks in the Adirondacks near Minerva on Oct. 25, 2017.

MINERVA — The Hudson River is a small stream as it courses through pristine forests in the Adirondacks in northern New York, not far from its source on Mount Marcy, the state’s highest peak.

During World War II, the federal government built a 30-mile long railroad that sliced through this verdant patch, stretching from North Creek to Tahawus, a remote hamlet about 125 miles north of Albany.

State officials opposed the railroad at the time because of its intrusion on the Adirondack Forest Preserve.

OCTOBER EDITORIAL: Where’s the action on junk trains?

But the war effort superseded environmental concerns and the tracks were laid. The railroad was needed to carry ilmenite, a mineral used to make titanium for armored vehicles, from mines in Tahawus.

Today, a new battle is raging over plans to store up to 3,000 empty rail cars on the tracks, which were reopened five years ago after nearly a quarter century of remaining idle. More than 80 cars, some of which had been used to transport oil, began arriving a few weeks ago from the Midwest, to the consternation of environmental groups backed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“It is unsightly,” Cuomo told reporters recently in Glens Falls. “It is out of character with the Adirondacks. Nobody goes to the Adirondacks to look at old trains. They go there to look at the natural beauty.”

Iowa Pacific Holdings, a rail company based in Chicago, bought the rail line with plans to haul rocks from abandoned mines that could be used for large-scale construction projects such as building roads. So far, however, the firm has not found a market for the venture.

Instead, Iowa Pacific has begun leasing rail space, about 100 cars per track mile, to rail companies that want to store cars that are not needed.

Ed Ellis, the president of Iowa Pacific, said leasing space raises money needed for ongoing track maintenance and repairs.

In addition to the old mining rail line, Iowa Pacific also operates a connecting railroad, the scenic Saratoga & North Creek Railway that runs 60 miles from Saratoga Springs to North Creek, which is home to the Gore Mountain ski resort. It began operating the railway, which is used primarily for sightseeing rides, in 2011 under a lease agreement with Warren County and the town of Corinth, which own the tracks on the scenic railroad.

Iowa Pacific, however, is responsible for maintaining all the tracks from Saratoga to Tahawus, which Ellis said costs more than $750,000 per year. Leasing storage space on the tracks, Ellis said, is a way to generate revenue to allow the company to run the scenic railway while it continues to seek customers for the rocks from the mines.

“We’re patient investors,” he said. “This is not about quarterly earnings. This is about the long-term future of railroads.”

But critics suspect that the storage deal will prove anything but temporary and oppose parking the rail cars for aesthetic reasons and also over concerns that the cars could damage the environment if they start deteriorating.

“In essence Iowa Pacific is trying to build this linear junkyard through the Adirondack Park,” said Peter Bauer, the executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, an environmental group. “It appears that Iowa Pacific will continue to bring in more oil tanker cars until the state steps in and halts this activity.”

Ellis said that all the rail cars had been inspected and thoroughly cleaned by their owners.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation and the Adirondack Park Agency, another state entity that regulates land use in the park, also oppose the storage arrangement. “We are seriously concerned about potential environmental impacts and are evaluating all legal and regulatory options at our disposal,’’ the agencies said in a joint statement.

But so far no action has been taken.

Most of the mining rail line crosses through Essex County, which borders Warren to the north. “The Adirondacks are beautiful and we want to keep it that way,” said Stephen McNally, the supervisor of the town of Minerva, which is in Essex.

Warren County officials say they are disappointed by the performance of the sightseeing railroad, which they say has not lived up to promises by Iowa Pacific that it would boost the local economy.

Iowa Pacific was supposed “to support economic development and business activity that creates jobs in our area,’’ said Ronald Conover, the chairman of the Warren County board of supervisors. “Storing rail cars doesn’t do that.”

Not everyone, however, is against the storage of rail cars.

“It’s a slippery slope,” said Thomas R. Scozzafava, the supervisor of the town of Moriah in Essex County. “Where does it stop? It’s like trying to tell a grocery store, we don’t like the shopping carts out front. What about car dealerships and marinas? Are we going to tell them they can’t store cars and boats? It’s a railroad, that’s what you do.”

Ellis downplayed the argument that the line of parked rail cars are unsightly, noting that they are over two miles from the nearest road. “The cars are really out of sight, out in the middle of nowhere, in a place that’s seldom seen,” he said.

Bauer is among a number of environmentalists who would prefer that the railroad tracks be torn up and turned into a recreational trail, something that has been done across the country in places where tracks have been largely abandoned or barely used.

For now, though empty rail cars continue to arrive in the forest with more to come, in part, a consequence of the rising global supply of oil for which there are not customers.

Iowa Pacific says it is simply trying to take advantage of what is happening in the oil market to finance its business.

“If there’s an opportunity to make money,’’ Ellis said, “you make money.”

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