A new proposal has been floated, or perhaps the decision has already been made, to line hundreds of used and oil-soaked tanker cars along the Essex County portion of the Tahawus railroad. The Saratoga-North Creek Railway leaders have big plans for a new use to this railroad in addition to the scenic trains from Saratoga and North Creek and nascent efforts to haul product from Barton Mines or rock and tailings from the Tahawus mine.

There are many questions about the proposal, which need to be answered in the weeks ahead.

The Saratoga-North Creek Railway is part of the larger Iowa Pacific Railroad, which owns or leases tracks in eight areas around the U.S. They lease the rail track in Saratoga County and in Warren County, where the county owns the line. They purchased the Sanford Lake section of the rail line, which is in Essex County, and runs from the Hudson River, largely along side the Boreas River and then the Hudson River along the Tahawus Road, to the Tahawus mine.

Last week, company President Ed Ellis made a presentation to the Warren County Board of Supervisors Public Works Committee about the company’s new plans. He reported about what he saw as an exciting new use and business opportunity for his rail lines with low traffic – long-term storage of used oil tanker cars.

Click here to see a video of the Ellis presentation. Click here to see a Post Star editorial that takes a dim view of the proposal.

Ellis sees a big opportunity for storing hundreds of used oil tanker cars on the Essex County part of the line. He stated that they have had big success in Colorado storing these cars. He says they can line 100 cars per mile and have 3-5 miles of such cars stockpiled on a rail line in Colorado, which Iowa Pacific owns.

A section of the Sanford Lake Rail Line near the Tahawus Road in the Town of Newcomb, Essex County.

A section of the Sanford Lake Rail Line near the Tahawus Road in the Town of Newcomb, Essex County.

These cars were all recently used to haul crude oil from Canada or from the U.S. Midwest. Canada recently passed new regulations that all tanker cars had to be doubled-hulled, which mandates a new outer insulated shell that will prevent cars from heating up and exploding in the event of a fire. New U.S. rules for such retrofitting of oil tankers have been issued and are being challenged. This has placed the future of the current oil tanker car fleet in question.

In this chaos, Ellis sees an opportunity. He says new regulations will affect as many as 80,000 oil tanker cars. He states that the retrofitting market cannot handle the volume and that old cars will need to be stored out of service for years before they will be upgraded. He stated that many cars could be recycled as they have valuable scrap steel, but that they would need to be cleaned of oil residues that coat the inside of each car beforehand. The cleaning process is not cheap; something Ellis said costs $3500-4000 per car and he said that the cleaning market is overwhelmed and backlogged by the volume of cars.

All of this points to a robust storage market and Ellis said he now has a sales person working full time on selling storage on their lines. He stated that in Colorado, he has hundreds of such cars within two miles of his home there. He said there is no storage capacity in the Northeast U.S. and that his line is Essex County would be ideal.

Ellis was questioned about whether he would use various “siding” tracks or use the main track for tanker storage. He said he has limited siding capacity, so he would use the main line. There is some siding track at the Tahawus mine and a long section, where a few dozen cars could be stored, along the main track in a section that runs through the Vanderwhacker Mountain part of the Forest Preserve. That stretch of rail line is a stone’s-throw from the Boreas River. Ellis said that the main track would have to be used, which would block future opportunities to haul rock from the Tahawus mine.

Over five miles of the Sanford Lake Rail Line also runs through the new McIntyre East tract that the state just purchased for the Forest Preserve from The Nature Conservancy. This section includes a long stretch of the Hudson River, a fun and beautiful paddle south of the mine. In this tract the rail line runs close to the Hudson River at many places.

Ellis maintains that these used tanker cars are safe and do not leak. They are all empty though coated inside and may contain a few gallons of remnant crude. They will be marked with hazardous taxi waste flags due to the fumes produced, but all the cars will be properly vented.

There are clearly many questions about the storage of these materials.

In his presentation, Ellis made a number of things very clear to county leaders. The tourist train runs at a loss and he needs freight service to finance the rail line and meet lease payments. Their plan to haul rock from the Tahawus mine, which he referred to as “imaginary rock,” has sputtered. A negligible amount of rock has been hauled to date, just 80,000 tons, which lost money. He said that without a viable freight market, the lease deal will collapse and Iowa Pacific will not be able to run the line. Its first 5-year contract ended at the end of June 2015, and a new contract has yet to be signed.

At this point it’s unclear what local permits are needed for storage of potentially toxic waste. Would this activity be a new commercial use under the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) Act? Are there other state permits that are needed? Are there federal permits needed? Ellis says few, if any, permits are needed. He states that he has the clear right to haul these oil tanker cars through Saratoga and Warren counties, and because he owns the track he can store them in Essex County. Many questions remain are permits.

One big question: Is this what the Adirondack Park is all about? Governor Mario Cuomo stood behind the APA commissioners in the early 1990s when they passed a resolution that the Adirondack Park should be used to handle locally generated garbage and waste, but not used to handle outside materials. This principle was upheld in 1995-1996 by Governor George Pataki who rebuffed an effort by Essex County leaders to sell the Essex County landfill to a company that wanted to make it a major regional landfill – a Fresh Kills north. Does the storage of hundreds of oil soaked tanker cars in Essex County comport with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s vision of the Adirondack Park?

There are also many questions about the legal history of the Sanford Lake Rail Line, allowed to be built through the Forest Preserve for a specific purpose during World War II, which did not include storage of used oil tanker cars.

The idea of hundreds of used tanker cars lining the Sanford Lake Rail Line alongside the Hudson and Boreas Rivers, in places that are otherwise deep in the Forest Preserve, is jarring. This proposal merits a wide public discussion and should be subject to a public hearing and a public review where all facts and information are detailed.

This article also ran on the Adirondack Almanack.