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Public demands more environmental analysis before salt mine expansion


Photo: Matt Butler

"We need a political campaign. We need to wage the same kind of battle against Governor Cuomo that won the fight against shale fracking [...] I implore you: help protect the lake. If you rely on the DEC to help protect this lake, they're just not going to do it."

The words came from activist Walter Hang, of Toxics Targeting, and were met with silent nods of approval. It was a loud crescendo to a meeting otherwise filled with quiet technological analysis of the planned addition of another access shaft beneath Cayuga Lake by Cargill Deicing Technology to provide another entry and ventilation to its road salt mining operation beneath the lake.

Several speakers addressed the packed room at the Merrill Family Sailing Center, asking one central question, blared on a flyer handed out at the entrance: "Too high a risk?"

The event, by Cayuga Lake Environmental Action Now (CLEAN), called for the crowd to contact Governor Andrew Cuomo's office to demand the completion of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) from the state's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). On August 31, 2016, that department declined the opportunity to produce a full DEIS, deeming that the 12.3 surface acre addition's effect on the environment is negligible enough to not warrant a full-scale review process. The DEC had previously issued a "negative declaration" of the project's environmental impact in June 2016.

The DEC has final say on such matters, as the state owns the land on which the mine rests, though Cargill operates the mine itself.

CLEAN, on the other hand, is calling for an environmental review of both the additional shaft and the tunnel which would connect it to the mine. The shaft would be located 2,500 feet in the ground, while the tunnel one stretch one mile.

CLEAN invited Richard Young, a professor of geological sciences at SUNY Geneseo to provide an analysis of the similarities between the Cayuga Lake Salt Mine and the infamous Retsof Salt Mine, which was one of the biggest in the world before it collapsed in 1994. Young showed Retsof, which was located about 25 miles from Rochester, as an example of the inherent risks of drilling and mining under bodies of water. The geology surrounding the Cayuga Lake is similar to that which neighbored the Retsof mine, according to Young, and its size raises the potential for a collapse. The research and numbers, Young said, don't match up with the DEC's decision to not investigate further.

Brian Eden, the Chair of the Tompkins County Environmental Management Council, advised attendees that the only way to work against the proposal is to convince the DEC there are actual environmental concerns that are being overlooked, a process Eden admitted will be difficult but is really the last option left. He said the DEC had only quietly publicized their rulings, perhaps in order to avoid any public backlash; two public comment periods were held, he noted, but only after the department had made its determination.

Additionally, Raymond Vaughan, a Buffalo-based environmental scientist and geologist, gave a speech regarding five points of the project that troubled him. He listed:

  • The lack of a clear closure plan from Cargill - Once the new shaft is decommissioned, will it be flooded or kept dry?

  • A lack of clarity or transparency from Cargill regarding collapse prevention - shifting bedrock can threaten the integrity of the arched pillar support systems.

  • A seeming disregard of evidence of thinning bedrock toward the northern end of the project - The distance from the top of the bedrock layer through to the top of the salt mine is only about 100-120 feet, which is much smaller than other parts of the mine under the lake. Vaughan said this can lead to possible water leakage issues. Vaughan said ideal bedrock distance to protect a mine would be more like 350 feet.

  • Possible water table concerns, with Vaughan explaining certain water flow patterns in the area suggest groundwater could be leaking into the existing mine shafts already, which could be exacerbated by another mine shaft.

  • A fault that may be developing around Corehole 18 of the mine, something Vaughan has determined through bedrock scan data showing the layer's thickness. Vaughan said there could be other explanations for this, but Cargill hasn't provided that yet.

The issue of segmentation was not broached directly at the meeting, though it was listed as another allegation by CLEAN. Segmentation is essentially a end-run around the environmental review process: instead of presenting a complete proposal, applicants might break down a proposal into smaller parts, or segments, which would give the appearance of lesser environmental impact than if the whole project was submitted at once. It is outlawed in New York. CLEAN points to Cargill's separation of its proposal for the new shaft, as well as the expanded drilling to the north, as possible segmentation violations.