State backs off effort for ‘abandonment’ of Tahawus rail line

The state Department of Environmental Conservation has asked federal officials to postpone its application to have a section of rail line in Warren and Essex counties considered “abandoned.”

Citing discussions between rail line owner Iowa Pacific Holdings and would-be buyer OmniTRAX, and a pledge by OmniTRAX not to pursue “long-term” train car storage on the line, the DEC’s counsel in the case asked for a 90-day “abeyance” in its application to allow sale discussions to continue.

OmniTRAX has agreed not to pursue train car storage on the line in return for the DEC’s withdrawal of the abandonment application, state Assistant Attorney General Joshua Tallent wrote in a letter sent to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board.

“OmniTRAX has represented to the department that, should it proceed with the contemplated purchase, it would enter into a binding and enforceable agreement with DEC barring OmniTRAX from using the line for the long-term storage of rail cars,” Tallent wrote.

The state has been seeking to have the rail line known as the Tahawus line or Sanford Lake Branch deemed “abandoned” by the STB to bar Iowa Pacific from storing cars there in the future. The company placed several dozen out-of-service tankers on the line last fall, drawing criticism from environmental groups and local government leaders as they sat on the line in the state Forest Preserve.

Iowa Pacific operated Saratoga & North Creek Railway and owns the 33-mile-long line in Johnsburg, Minerva and Newcomb, which connects to lines owned by Warren County and the town of Corinth to the south.

Saratoga & North Creek Railway ceased operations earlier this year amid financial problems and has been negotiating to sell the line to OmniTRAX, a Colorado-based transportation company that hopes to work with a local contractor and mine owner to contract to move stone from a defunct mine in Tahawus.

Supervisors in Essex and Hamilton counties had opposed the abandonment application, as has the town of Newcomb.

Warren County supervisors were to discuss possible opposition to the abandonment application at Friday’s meeting of the Board of Supervisors, and Horicon Supervisor Matt Simpson, chairman of the board’s Public Works Committee, said he planned to hold off on that resolution in light of this week’s state request for abeyance.