- By Dan Veaner
New York State Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton held a press conference Tuesday to announce she and Assemblyman Steve Englebright have sent a new letter to New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Basil Seggos urging a moratorium on all permitting of salt mining beneath Lake Cayuga, and requested the DEC require Cargill to move its mining operations under dry land. Lifton said she is categorically opposed to continued mining under the lake.
"It is critical that we preserve this fresh water lake, both for drinking water and for every other purpose that it has," she said. "I think we ought to be operating by the precautionary principal. Given what we know about what happened at Retsof... we also had problems with a mine at Tully, and roof collapses at Crestwood... there are major geological forces at work and I don't know why we would want to take a risk with it. This is talking about not taking those risks."
Lifton warned that conditions similar to the 1994 mining disaster at Retsof, New York, near her home town of Geneseo, may threaten the mine below Cayuga Lake. She called Retsof the worst salt mining disaster in New York State history, noting that it resulted in sink holes, land and property damage, and hurt local water wells.
This is the second letter Lifton and Englebright, who is the NYS Assembly Committee on Environmental Conservation chair, have sent asking that mining permitting be halted under the lake. Lifton and Toxics Targeting President Walter Hang held a similar press conference at Stewart Park in July to announce the first letter. Hang joined Lifton again this week to talk about geologic concerns about the mine.
"Calling a time out, not granting any re-authorization makes sense because the last environmental review was in 2003," Hang said. "That was 14 years ago. That's an eternity in regulatory affairs. I don't think this information had, earlier, come to light. Now I think we have a much better technical, as well as public policy understanding of whats going on."
But Mine Manager Shawn Mine Manager Shawn Wilczynski says the mine is strictly regulated, and subject to annual reviews of mine stability, among other safety issues. While Hang said Tuesday that new geological evidence brought to light by SUNY Geneseo Professor of Geology Emeritus Richard A. Young indicates good reason to fear a mine collapse, Wilczynski says the company has been aware of these concerns for some time.
"This might be new information for some," he said after the July press conference. "I don't believe it's new information for Cargill or their geologists for the past 15 years. Those things have been considered. I attended the CLEAN meeting just to make sure that there was no information that came to light that we hadn't considered. I left that meeting quite confident that we had, indeed, done that."
The Lansing Planning Board is currently reviewing a new mine shaft project that will allow access for miners and air supply closer to the active mine area, north of Cargill's main facility. The DEC issued a permit for the project, leaving the local planning board to consider the surface facilities that include four buildings that have been designed to resemble farm buildings in order to blend into the rural landscape.
The existing mine shaft at lake level is 2,300 feet deep. Cayuga Lake is 435 feet deep, separating the lake bottom from the mine by 1,865 feet of stone, shale and salt layers between the mine and the lake. The proposed Shaft 4 project is located on higher ground, and will be 2,500 feet deep. The mine produces two million tons of road salt per year.
Seggos noted in his reply to Lifton and Englebright, "Although the application before us includes only the Shaft 4 project, DEC takes your concerns seriously and has considered them with regard to the ongoing, previously approved salt mining operations. Please note that the proposed action to add a new access shaft does not immediately impact the mine or mining operations. These activities are permitted and may continue with or without the construction and use of Shaft 4."
Young's findings have been challenged by Cornell Professor of Geology Larry Cathles, who has sent his own findings to Albany in a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo. Cathles has addressed concerns by Cayuga Lake Environmental Action Now (CLEAN), which presented Young's findings at a meeting in Ithaca a while before Lifton wrote her first letter to Seggos.
Hang accused Cargill of being 'fully aware' of instability in the mine, saying they experimented with the width of salt pillars that are space evenly to hold up the ceiling of mine tunnels. He also explained that tectonic forces cause heaves in the floor of the mine, and used a photograph from the Cayuga mine to illustrate such a heave.
"Dr. Young asserted the horizontal tectonic forces pressing into the lake creates thrust," Hang said. "These are immensely powerful geologic forces. This is, essentially, the concern. At the Cayuga mine you can see that there are these heaves that have been reported."
Tompkins County Legislator (Lansing) Mike Sigler attended the press conference and spoke to reporters outside Lifton's office after it concluded. He said he had texted Wilczynski during the press conference to ask what the picture actually depicted. Sigler said the picture was not taken in a part of the mine that is under the lake on level 6 which is currently being mined, but instead was taken in a tunnel under dry land on level 4. Wilczynski confirmed this Wednesday after the Lansing Star reached out to him for comment.
"The picture Mr. Hang continues to use is from a study conducted in 1968 when mining was done on the #4 level," Wilczynski said. Floor heave, as shown in the picture, happens when salt creep causes a thin layer of floor salt to 'buckle' and separate from a shale floor. This kind of floor heave was rare in the 1960s and has not occurred while mining under the lake. The 1968 study is evidence that efforts to understand horizontal stresses from all sources (including tectonic movement) has been considered for decades. The DEC addressed this issue in the responsiveness summary issued with permit approval in August."
The DEC report Wilczynski referenced was issued earlier this year in response to nearly 100 public comments submitted mainly from Tompkins County residents and officials. The comments were submitted during a public comment period prior to DEC issuing the permit for the shaft.
With regard to the concern about tectonic forces threatening potential mine collapse, the report concludes, "Commenters assert that unloading and horizontal stresses result in north-south thrust faults along the bottom of Cayuga Lake without providing any proof or analogous structures to support these claims. Commenters have stated that such a fault occurs in the Tully Valley, another predominantly north-south trending valley. Their finding in regard to valley stress thrust faulting was drawn from a report prepared by another party who reviewed and interpreted geophysical logs and drilling records for nearby wells. Because no new data or analyses were used to reinterpret north-south valley stress faulting, this evidence of valley stress faulting and its potential impacts on the mine was not considered credible by DEC upon review."
Sigler criticized Lifton for not reaching out to Cargill officials before writing the letters and addressing the press.
"One would think that an inquisitive mind would just be interested," he said. "I don't wait for people to come to me and say, 'oh what do you think of that?' I go out and ask people. I don't think that's what's on their agenda. They're already calling for a mine closure and they haven't even talked to Cargill. I find that remarkable."
Lifton said that she is willing to talk to Cargill officials, but is waiting for them to call her.
"I've said over and over again I'm happy to meet with people," Lifton said. "So far no one has contacted me so far about a meeting. I haven't had a direct meeting with Cargill."
Wilczynski says he offered to meet with Lifton, but she didn't follow up.
"At the previous press conference held at Stewart Park in July I verbally offered to meet with Assemblywoman Lifton at any time," he said. "Unfortunately she has not tried to contact me."
Sigler pointed out that the Retsof mine was under dry land, not under a lake, criticizing Lifton and Hang for using that as an example to stop under-lake mining.
"The DEC learned a lot from the Retsof mine collapse," Sigler said. "They know how to do things. What I saw at this press conference was two people who said, 'We don't really care what the DEC says. Their scientists are wrong and we're right'. A lot of the stuff (in the press conference) just wasn't right. I find it disheartening."
Wilczynski defended the mine's safety record, as well as its role as a 'good citizen', and stressed that independent geological reviews are required annually as part of ongoing monitoring of mining activities and stability.
"Cargill believes a moratorium is bad for Lansing and the surrounding communities," he said. "It would cost hundreds of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in economic impact yearly. Additionally, it isn't warranted and could put the safety of millions of New York State residents at risk if salt was not available. Cargill follows a rigorous environmental review process established by the State of New York for mining operations, including an annual review. Our top priority is the health and safety of our workers and the environmental protection of our community. Cargill is proud to be part of the Lansing community, and we take great pride in operating our mine in a safe and sustainable way and look forward to continuing to provide our customers with deicing solutions that save lives, enhance commerce and reduce environmental impact."
While the mining permit expired Wednesday, the DEC has received Cargill's permit renewal application, and received a notice of 'Complete Application' receipt from the DEC dated 9/6/2017. Because Cargill met the application deadline they are permitted to continue to operate under the previously approved conditions while the DEC reviews the new application.