Saratoga-North Creek Railway at the North Creek train station
The federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) June 14 decided to give the Saratoga & North Creek Railway an exemption for common carrier service along the 29.71-mile Tahawus Line between North Creek and Newcomb.
The exemption, which took effect Saturday, June 16, clears the way for the railway to begin hauling ore out of the old Tahawus mine, owned by NL Industries. The mine had most recently been used to extract ilmenite for the production of titanium dioxide, as well as magnetite, and the last run along the railway was in 1989.
In the decision, the STB denied a petition by the Atlantic States Legal Foundation and the Adirondack Committee of the Sierra Club’s Atlantic Chapter to reject Saratoga’s notice of exemption. They filed the petition on June 4, three weeks after the STB upheld its previous denial of the exemption (Nov. 23). However, the May 14 decision also said the Board’s previous concerns had been answered in full. Therefore, the railway had a green light to file again for an exemption.
“ASLF/Sierra has not shown that Saratoga’s notice contains false or misleading information that would warrant rejection,” the decision states. “Furthermore, ASLF/Sierra has presented no issues within the Board’s jurisdiction that warrant the use of the Board’s petition for exemption or application process. Nor has ASLF/Sierra demonstrated that the Board needs more time to address the issues raised here before the exemption takes effect.”
ASLF/Sierra argued that 13 miles of the Tahawus Line are in the Adirondack State Forest Preserve, and they claim it is protected as public forest land under Section 1, Article 14 of the Constitution of New York. They also argued that the Tahawus Line has been abandoned due to non-use. ASLF/Sierra said the Board should require Saratoga to use a procedure that would allow more scrutiny than a notice of exemption.
ASLF/Sierra also said that an environmental and historic review should be required, noting that 13 miles of the Tahawus Line is a National Historic Landmark and that renewed operations on the Tahawus Line would result in unspecified environmental impacts.
Finally, ASLF/Sierra argued that it is unlikely that operation of the Tahawus Line will result in the creation of many jobs.
Being a common carrier means the railway would provide service to any shipper upon request, not just NL Industries, the owner of the Tahawus mine. Railway operators want to ship rock from the mine, which had been in full operation from the 1940s to the 1980s.
Obtaining an automatic class exemption to operate as a common carrier removes the application process, thereby expediting the railway’s operation of the Tahawus line.
The STB’s rejection of Saratoga’s exemption came on the heels of a petition filed Nov. 11 by the environmental group Protect the Adirondacks protesting the railway’s notice of exemption. Protect listed seven issues about Saratoga’s exemption status, including the firm belief that an environmental review and a historic assessment must be performed.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) initially raised concerns over the state-owned lands the Tahawus line crosses; however, DEC and Department of Transportation officials filed a joint letter with the STB March 15 urging approval of common carrier status for the Saratoga-North Creek Railway.
During the appeal process, many letters of public support were filed by supporters, including towns and counties and state and federal politicians.
U.S. Senators Charles Schumer (D) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D) and Rep. Bill Owens (D-Plattsburgh) had lobbied in support of the Tahawus Line, as it is expected to create short-term construction jobs and long-term jobs once hauling begins.
“I am pleased to hear that this rail line has been officially approved,” Owens said in a prepared release on June 15. “This project is needed to continue the momentum we have experienced in job growth and economic development in the community.”
According to Iowa Pacific Holdings, about 15 to 20 people would be employed during reconstruction of the track, and the completed rail line would pump at least $160,000 into the local economy each year. The representatives also noted that once hauling begins again, it will create numerous additional long-term jobs.
The company anticipates hauling 100 million tons of material and tailings from the Tahawus mine for this project. A great deal of these tailings contain titanium remnants from mining at Tahawus from World War II until the mine closed in 1989.