What can the state really do about eyesore train cars?

Tanker cars are lined up on Iowa Pacific’s train tracks in October in the Adirondack town of Minerva. (Photo provided — Brendan Wiltse)

We have been somewhat surprised by the angry reaction to Iowa Pacific Holdings storing train cars on a private railroad track in the Adirondack town of Minerva.

“It’s just repugnant to the concept of the Adirondack Park that you would use it for a storage lot,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a phone interview with the Enterprise. “Repugnant” — that’s a strong word.

Mind you, we are not surprised that people dislike having a junkyard spring up in a beautiful spot alongside the Hudson and Boreas rivers, where the railroad is one of the only human traces.

We are also not surprised that local government officials have not jumped up to defend this particular holding company, which owes money to Warren County and which has not successfully delivered on promises of boosting the local economy. Local officials supported Iowa Pacific to run ski trains from Saratoga Springs to Gore Mountain and to haul tailings out of the old mine at Tahawus, the rail line’s northern terminus. The first enterprise was abandoned, and the second never happened. Iowa Pacific is now using the “common carrier” status it got for the tailings project to turn this railroad into a parking lot.

It’s not just here, either. News reports show Iowa Pacific recently did the same thing in Chicago and on the Pacific coast near Santa Cruz, California. In Chicago, the company was accused of extortion because it parked the tankers in the Goose Island area right after the city changed zoning to allow development there; then, when a developer complained, the company said it would only stop if he wired it $275,000 within 24 hours.

At the very least, this company is not interested in being a good neighbor right now.

But still, this is a private company storing private items on private property, and on infrastructure specifically designed for that particular kind of item. Does the fact that few will defend that mean the Adirondacks have changed even more than we thought? Property rights used to be a rallying cry in the groundswell against the state Adirondack Park Agency.

So far, despite the governor making it his mission to stop this storage, it’s not clear that it violates any law or regulation. Some environmentalists say these obsolete DOT-111 tanker cars collectively are a bulk industrial storage facility, but we’re not sure how far that argument goes. Iowa Pacific is just storing containers, not the pollutants they used to hold.

Of course, how empty the tankers really are matters. They may well contain residual oil or other things that could endanger the river right next to them. Whatever else the governor does, he must make sure the state Department of Environmental Conservation throws its full weight into inspecting these rail cars. If anything is leaking out of them, the DEC has a duty to uphold anti-pollution laws.

The DEC has also filed an complaint with the federal Surface Transportation Board, seeking to take over control of the 30 mile private railroad from North Creek to Tahawus. As that process plays out, the small environmental group Adirondack Wild has asked the APA to issue a cease-and-desist order to stop Iowa Pacific from adding to its tanker parking lot, according to the Albany Times Union newspaper. The group says the APA has the authority to do so under the Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers System Act. APA Executive Director Terry Martino responded that the APA will “continue to review all legal and regulatory options.”

So is this legal or not? That remains to be seen.

As its regulatory wheels slowly turn, New York’s government has resorted to soft power. The Cuomo administration recently pressured the Union Tank Car Company, a subsidiary of billionaire Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, into removing about 65 cars from this Adirondack line, but Iowa Pacific isn’t backing down. It has indicated it could potentially store thousands of cars from Minerva north to Tahawus.

It seems like every North Country community has at least one car garden or other unofficial junkyard, often owned by some local pack rat whose hoardings have gotten out of control. We’ve seen many municipalities wrestle with these, struggling to block them with local laws, clean them up at taxpayer expense or legally force the owners to do so. Sometimes it works, although each case takes a lot of work, but often such efforts do little. Junkyards still happen. The late Sen. Ron Stafford, R-Plattsburgh, developed a grant program to clean up junk cars, but that has gone the way of Stafford himself.

Ugly as these stored train cars are, we do not think they pose as severe a threat to the Adirondacks as some say. The woods will easily overcome them.

In the end, even in the heavily regulated Adirondacks, Iowa Pacific has a lot of rights on its own property — but those rights don’t make what it’s doing right. We hope its owners start being better neighbors.