Mothballed rail tanker cars begin arriving in Adirondacks, sparking outrage

Oct 23, 2017

The first wave of rail tanker cars began arriving in the Adirondack Park last week. The mothballed industrial cars are being stored on track in the heart of the Park.

Iowa Pacific and its Saratoga North Creek Railroad subsidiary say they eventually hope to store thousands of mothballed oil and chemical tanker cars near the High Peaks Wilderness.

The company says it will drop the controversial plan only if it is paid hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A long debated plan, now rolling forward

Last week, video went viral in the Adirondacks showing rail tanker cars, many of them marked with graffiti, rolling north through Warren County. The cars are headed for a remote section of track in Essex County near Tahawus and the High Peak Wilderness.

This aerial photograph of rail tanker cars parked by the Boreas River was first published by the Adirondack Explorer magazine. The photographer has asked to remain anonymous. The image is used here with permission of the photographer and the Explorer.

"We have finally achieved some success," said Iowa Pacific CEO Ed Ellis at a public meeting in Glens Falls. "We do have actually one of the largest companies, Union Tank Car, which is owned by Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffet’s company moving clean cars, not hazardous cars [into the Adirondacks]."

But the plan by Iowa Pacific and the Saratoga North Creek Railroad to park as many as 2,000 tanker cars in the Park long-term faces growing opposition from environmentalists and from many local leaders. 

Claudia Braymer represents Glens Falls on the Warren County board of supervisors. She also spoke at the meeting.

"I do not want to stand here as a member of the board of supervisors and not put on the record that we are opposed to storing junk cars in the Adirondack Park," Braymer said.

But Ellis told Warren County officials that they agreed to a contract with his company knowing that storing these cars would be part of his business plan.

“I made it very clear that I couldn’t change the contract to take the movement of cars out, and number two, I personally committed to not store hazardous cars, and number three, I let everybody know we were going to work to continue to find cars," said Ellis.

Company demands "reasonable compensation" to drop plan

Ellis told supervisors that he had committed to not store hazardous cars. He says these tanker cars have already been cleaned. He then offered to cancel this controversial plan, but only if he’s compensated – paid by local officials - an amount of money he described as reaching "seven figures."

“If you want us to not store rail cars in the Adirondacks, there should be reasonable compensation to us for agreeing not to do that," Ellis said. 

But Warren County supervisors including Doug Beattie from Queensbury pushed back, pointing out that the railroad has often failed to pay its bills and describing this project as a bad fit for the Adirondacks.

“We think we have something real special up here in the Adirondacks. Personally if we had a hundred or five hundred or two thousand cars lining the tracks up in Essex County, just can’t get by that as something I can support.”

Will Governor Cuomo intervene?

Aerial photographs that circulated this week show these tanker cars already parked a short distance from the Boreas River. Environmental groups are pushing even harder, demanding that state officials intervene. 

Rail tanker cars arrive in the Adirondacks.
Credit Protect the Adirondacks

“We must stop the trashing of the Adirondacks with old out-of-service rail cars. Where is Governor Cuomo? Where is the Department of Environmental Conservation? Where is the Adirondack Park Agency?" asked Protect the Adirondacks' Peter Bauer in a statement.

"This is a major moment in the history of the Adirondack Park and the forever wild Forest Preserve, yet state leaders are AWOL," he said. "This runs counter to everything that the Adirondack Park is all about and must be stopped.”

In an interview with the Albany Times-Union, DEC spokesman Sean Mahar said the Cuomo administration is "concerned about the potential environmental impact of the storage of these rail cars in the Adirondack Park.”  He said the DEC is “evaluating all legal and regulatory options to ensure the environment and the public are protected.”

For his part, Ellis has insisted that he doesn’t need permission from local or state officials. “This is a federally certified railroad,” Ellis said.  “Any use of the track for car storage pre-empts those agencies.”

However, at the public meeting, Ellis did acknowledge that the growing anger over this plan is a challenge for his company.  The cars arriving now in the Park are owned by Berkshire Hathaway, the company owned by billionaire investor Warren Buffet.

“Because of the Warren Buffet connection, they are pretty sensitive to what the public thinks,” Ellis said. "If the board of supervisors passes a resolution opposing [the storage plan] it's going to hurt me with our car storage customers," noting that firms don't want to be "in the middle of a political football."

Ellis urged Warren County supervisors to pass a resolution supporting this rail car storage project, but that kind of move appears unlikely. 

The county’s finance committee has already passed a resolution opposing the storage of tanker cars in the Adirondacks. The full Essex County board of supervisors passed a similar resolution earlier this month. The town of Minerva supervisor has also blasted the plan, calling it “very disappointing.”

"There are many groups and individuals who work tirelessly to keep the Adirondack Park as the jewel that it is, but I cannot see how storing these cars goes along with this vision,” said Stephen McNally, Supervisor or the Town of Minerva in a statement.

It’s worth noting that Iowa Pacific faces similar controversies around the U.S. for storing rail cars, and in other locations has also demanded money in exchange for moving the stored cars. The Chicago Tribune reported last month that the company asked for more than a quarter million dollars before moving tanker cars parked on track in a Chicago neighborhood.