Essex County committee opposes rail abandonment

Tupper Lake company still plans to ship stone out of Tahawus by train

Paul Mitchell of Tupper Lake receives an honorary plaque from Fort Drum’s Col. Clair Gill, thanking him for letting the Army camp and train at his newly acquired Tahawus Mine. (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

ELIZABETHTOWN — A key committee of the Essex County Board of Supervisors on Monday opposed state plans to have a rail line in parts of Essex and Warren counties deemed “abandoned.”

The board’s Ways and Means Committee unanimously opposed the resolution in opposition to the state effort to have the 29-mile stretch of rails between North Creek and Tahawus declared abandoned by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board. The resolution would result in the county formally opposing the closure through the Surface Transportation Board proceedings.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation has begun the process to seek legal abandonment because of “absence of current use” by owner Iowa Pacific Holdings LLC and “environmental, health and safety concerns” with use of the line through the state Forest Preserve.

The state attorney general’s office — which represents the DEC — notified the U.S. Surface Transportation Board earlier this month that it planned to seek a declaration that Iowa Pacific should no longer be able to operate on the line, and it should be considered abandoned. Iowa Pacific has been negotiating a sale of the line to Omnitrax, a Colorado-based transportation company, though no closing date has been announced.

The abandonment proceeding would not necessarily preclude future use of the rail line for train traffic other than Iowa Pacific. (Editor’s note: The preceding sentence was added to the original story for clarification.)

The state’s move comes as a new owner of the former mineral mines in Tahawus and Omnitrax have been working to begin moving stone tailings from the site south via rail. Iowa Pacific had hoped to do that as well, but had numerous business problems that led to it pulling out of the region and ending local operations.

Newcomb town Supervisor Robin DeLoria, who introduced the Essex County resolution and through whose town much of the Tahawus rail line passes, said county and town officials believe the line will be useful in restarting some stone shipments at the line. But the shuttering of the rail line would hinder that significantly.

“If we didn’t file to oppose it, it would be done. The Surface Transportation Board would rubber-stamp it,” he said.

Both the mine’s new owner, Paul Mitchell Stone Products of Tupper Lake, and Omnitrax plan to contest the DEC abandonment filing as well. DeLoria said he believed the clear indications that the line will be used for railroad operations in the future should sway the Surface Transportation Board.

The Essex County Ways and Means Committee consists of the full Board of Supervisors, but the full board will consider the resolution at its Sept. 4 meeting.

DeLoria said he was “a little disappointed” that the DEC did not reach out to local leaders through whose communities the rail line passes to get their feedback on the abandonment effort, particularly since there were many who supported the reopening of the rail line in 2012 when it was purchased by Iowa Pacific.

Warren County supervisors have not formally discussed the abandonment action yet, but Horicon Supervisor Matt Simpson, chairman of the county’s Public Works Committee, said he believed it will be discussed at a coming meeting. The Public Works Committee meets again Thursday to discuss railroad issues in the wake of Iowa Pacific’s shuttering of Saratoga & North Creek Railway in recent months.

“It’s my personal opinion that the abandonment action forecloses on our options and impacts our railroad,” he said.

Warren County owns the tracks between Hadley and North Creek.