October 05, 2020

Reclaiming Land and Rails at an Adirondack Mine

Frederick H. Turner

Tahawus sits on the southern edge of the High Peaks wilderness in New York State’s six-million-acre Adirondack Park, close to both the source of the Hudson River and the state’s highest point, Mount Marcy. Because of Tahawus’s proximity to the Adirondack backcountry, it has long served as a point of departure for hikers. One of its most famous hikers was Vice President Theodore Roosevelt, who visited Tahawus in 1901 while President William McKinley was recovering from a gunshot wound. As he descended from the summit of Mount Marcy, Roosevelt received a telegram indicating that McKinley’s health had worsened. See Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt 778–80 (1979). By the time Roosevelt had returned to the Tahawus Club, he learned that the president appeared to be dying. Roosevelt abruptly departed the club’s MacNaughton Cottage and began a harrowing carriage ride, during which McKinley passed away. See Edmund Morris, Theodore Rex 3–7 (2001).

In addition to serving as the site of a pivotal moment in American presidential history, Tahawus also provides a valuable lens into the history of natural resource extraction and current discussions about how to use and reclaim former mining sites. Tahawus has been the site of mining operations twice, first in the early nineteenth century and again in the mid-twentieth century. In 1825, iron ore deposits were discovered in Tahawus, and geologist Ebenezer Emmons, who took part in the first recorded ascent of Mount Marcy, described the deposits as the “most extensive beds of this kind of ore in the district, and perhaps in the world.” Ebenezer Emmons, Geology of New-York, Part II: Comprising the Survey of the Second Geological District 250 (1842–44) (quoted in Philip G. Terrie, Contested Terrain: A New History of Nature and People in the Adirondacks 16 (1997)). The McIntyre Mine removed iron ore for three decades, but the mine closed in 1857 due in part to the difficulty of transporting the ore and the presence of titanium dioxide, which was considered an impurity. Terrie, supra at 34; see Adirondack Park Agency, Historic Tahawus Tract.

Mining returned to Tahawus nearly a century later during World War II. With the United States at war, the titanium dioxide was now in demand because it could be used to produce titanium. The National Lead Company began mining titanium ore (ilmenite) near the original McIntyre Mine’s Lower Works. To avoid the transportation limits that had stymied the shipment of iron ore, a rail line was built from North Creek to Tahawus. The Defense Plant Corporation, a subsidiary of the New Deal–era Reconstruction Finance Corporation, acquired land for the rail line and then leased it to National Lead. See Michael Kudish, Railroads of the Adirondacks: A History 136 (1996). The titanium ore mining altered the landscape—by the time operations ceased in the 1980s, nearby Sanford Lake had been filled with waste slurry, a new channel had been excavated for the Hudson River, and a tailings pile had grown. See Michael Virtanen, Digging into Tahawus Mine, Adirondack Explorer, June 29, 2018.

Over the last 20 years, residents and regulators have initiated a number of different approaches to reclamation, conservation, and future use of the titanium ore mining site and the rail line. Tahawus’s location in the heart of the Adirondacks has informed each of the approaches. First, the Tahawus area garnered the attention of the Open Space Institute (OSI), a nonprofit organization that supports public lands through land acquisition and conservation easements. In 2003, OSI purchased nearly 10,000 acres around Tahawus from National Lead. See Open Space Institute Acquires Historic Tahawus Tract, Capping Eight-Year Effort, OSI News, Aug. 19, 2003. OSI subsequently sold roughly two-thirds of the parcel to New York State so that it could be added to the state’s Forest Preserve. See OSI Adds 6,800 Acres to Adirondack Forest Preserve Permanent Protection for Tahawus, OSI News, Feb. 20, 2008. The remaining one-third became part of a conservation easement that would allow for a working forest, and OSI retained a 212-acre site. Id. More recently, OSI has developed interpretative signs for the McIntyre Mine’s blast furnace built in the 1850s and committed to renovate the site that it owns, including work on the MacNaughton Cottage and improvements to the area trailheads. See Interpretative Plan for Tahawus Blast Furnace, OSI News, Aug. 22, 2013; Brian Mann, Green Group Spending $1 Million at Tahawus in Southern High Peaks, N. Country Pub. Radio, July 12, 2019.

Second, the Tahawus tailings pile has become the site of a new business that processes the former mining byproduct into construction material. Two years ago, Mitchell Stone Products purchased the industrial site that remained after OSI’s acquisition and began crushing the stone, which is then transported by truck. Virtanen, Digging into Tahawus Mine. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has approved the operation and indicated that there have been no reports of pollution from the site, which may stem from the fact that the mine operation extracted ilmenite rather than a sulfide-based ore. Id.

Third, debate has intensified about whether the old rail line that transported titanium ore out of Tahawus should be kept open for rail use or converted as part of the broader rails-to-trails movement. In 2017, the current owner, the Saratoga and North Creek Railroad (SNCR), kindled the debate when it started leasing portions of the Tahawus line to companies interested in storing empty rail cars, including some that had carried oil, on the idle line. Paul Post, Empty Rail Cars Roll into the Adirondacks, Stirring Controversy, N.Y. Times, Nov. 13, 2017. SNCR said that it needed the income to pay for upkeep, but state officials and environmental groups expressed concern about the arrangement. Id. A year later, DEC filed an application under 49 U.S.C. § 10903 with the Surface Transportation Board (STB) asking the agency to authorize third-party, or adverse, abandonment of the Tahawus line. STB Docket No. AB 1261, Filing ID 246351 (Sept. 7, 2018). In the request, DEC noted SNCR’s decision to use the line as a storage facility for obsolete railcars and stated that it sought abandonment in order to protect the Forest Preserve that the line traversed. Id. at 1.

DEC’s abandonment application is still pending with STB, but developments during the last two years provide insight into some of the environmental, economic, and legal issues that can arise in this kind of proceeding. As part of the application process, DEC prepared an environmental and historic report that involved coordination with federal agencies as well as the state’s Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation. Id. (exh. I). STB’s Office of Environmental Analysis reviewed the report and issued an Environmental Assessment (EA). STB Docket AB 1261, Decision ID 46607 (Oct. 12, 2018). That EA considered the potential environmental effects, including activities related to the salvage and disposal of the rail line, and determined that, among other things, DEC would need to consult with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about the removal of culverts or crossings. Id. at 2. The EA also considered whether the abandonment would affect historic properties, and STB determined that abandonment would not affect properties listed in or eligible for including in the National Historic Register of Historic Places. Id. at 3–4.

Delay followed the EA because of negotiations over the possible sale of SNCR and because of bankruptcy issues. SNCR’s discussions with a potential buyer led to a nearly one-year pause in the process. When those discussions ended, another company told STB that it had initiated negotiations with SNCR. DEC opposed any further postponement, however, and STB agreed to resume its review. See STB Docket No. AB 1261, Decision ID 47179 (Aug. 28, 2019). At the close of the new comment period, DEC submitted a request under 16 U.S.C. § 1247(d) that STB issue a Certificate of Interim Trail Use or Abandonment. STB Docket No. AB 1261, Filing ID 248530 (Sept. 30, 2019). In support, DEC stated that it “maintains extensive recreational facilities—principally hiking trails and related infrastructure—in the general vicinity of the line. Accordingly, DEC has identified the line as potentially well-suited for public recreational use.” Id. at 2. DEC and SNCR subsequently submitted a joint letter to STB indicating that the rail company was willing to discuss the creation of an interim trail, which is also known as railbanking, and to proceed with abandonment on a voluntary basis. STB Docket No. AB 1261, Filing ID 248626 (Oct. 18, 2019).

But on the very same day of the joint letter, a court handling the bankruptcy of SNCR’s parent company issued an order that expanded the receivership to include subsidiaries, including SNCR. See Amended Receivership Order, Big Shoulders Capital LLC v. San Luis & Rio Grande R.R., Inc., Case No. 19-cv-06029 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 18, 2019). STB learned of the development and sought supplemental information; it also decided to hold DEC’s abandonment application in abeyance. The trustee for the parent company’s estate told STB that the automatic stay imposed under 11 U.S.C. § 362(a) of the Bankruptcy Code did not apply to subsidiaries but added that the analysis would change if SNCR itself filed for bankruptcy. STB Docket No. AB 1261, Filing ID 300395 (Feb. 18, 2020). Then, on March 30, 2020, SNCR filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In re Saratoga & N. Creek Ry., Case No. 20-12313-TBM (Bankr. D. Colo.). In another letter to STB, the trustee indicated that under 11 U.S.C. § 362(b)(4), the automatic stay does not apply to the “the commencement or continuation of an action or proceeding by a governmental unit . . . to enforce such governmental unit’s . . . policy or regulatory power.” STB Docket No. AB 1261, Filing ID 300542, at 2 (Apr. 17, 2020). The trustee added that “because the adverse abandonment proceeding may be being brought pursuant to [DEC’s] regulatory power, the automatic stay may not apply to this instant abandonment proceeding.” Id. But citing uncertainty about whether this exception applied and the need for additional time to ascertain whether a sale of SNCR could occur, the trustee requested that the abandonment be held in abeyance. Id. at 3. Notably, SNCR also withdrew its nonobjection to voluntary abandonment. STB Docket No. AB 1261, Filing ID 300610 (May 11, 2020). On May 18, 2020, STB issued an order holding the process in abeyance until further notice. STB Docket No. AB 1261, Decision ID 50263.

The Tahawus line is located almost entirely within Essex County, New York, and while the STB and bankruptcy court proceedings unfold, the county’s Board of Supervisors has initiated an effort to reactivate rail operations on the line and avoid abandonment. The Board prepared a PowerPoint titled “Environmental and Economic Restoration of an Adirondack Mining Village” for the state’s U.S. senators and other elected officials. The presentation also was submitted to STB, with a letter stating: “The SNCR railroad . . . is an asset to Essex County not a burden.” STB Docket No. AB 1261, Filing ID 300544 (Apr. 17, 2020). The Board aims to have freight cars access “a massive, 80-million-ton mountain of crushed stone in the heart of the Adirondack Park.” Tim Rowland, Essex County Pushes Back on Tahawus Rail Conversion, Adirondack Explorer, May 5, 2020. That mountain of stone is the tailings pile being processed by Mitchell Stone Products, which has opposed the abandonment of the rail line.

These three approaches to reclamation, conservation, and future use build upon conversations about Tahawus’s natural resources that began nearly two hundred years ago. Perhaps reclamation is as much about reclaiming the past as it is about reclaiming the land.

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Frederick H. Turner

Mr. Turner is an attorney in the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and a member of the editorial board of Natural Resources & Environment. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Justice or the United States. He may be reached at fredturner@gmail.com.