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Despite a century of salt mining, Cargill getting local pushback on environmental issues


Assemblywoman Barbara LIfton wrote a second letter to the NYSDEC Commissioner pushing against Cargill, Inc.'s salt mining under Cayuga Lake. Sarah Mearhoff

Cayuga Lake may not be seeing much activity on its surface lately as Ithaca’s temperatures continue to fall, but deep under the lake's shore more than 200 employees continue to operate a 13,000-acre salt mine.

And, in the courtroom, things are only heating up: Environmental action group Cayuga Lake Environmental Action Now (CLEAN) — with four Tompkins County municipalities — filed an Article 78 Wednesday opposing the state Department of Environmental Conservation's decision to allow the construction of a new mine access shaft.

Ithaca's Common Council voted in October to sign the petition, and was joined by the towns of Ithaca, Ulysses and Union Springs in a push for further environmental review of the project and the mine.

The Cayuga Salt Mine, in operation since 1915, was acquired by Minnesota-based Cargill Inc. in 1970. Hundreds of local employees haul over 2 million tons of road salt from its Lansing location every year, providing the salt for about 1,500 locations throughout New York and the Northeast.

Stretching seven miles long and running 2,300 feet deep, the salt mine is the largest of its kind in the Western hemisphere.

But despite Cayuga's century of operation in Tompkins County, recent developments have brought public attention to the mine and its potential environmental impacts.

Cargill has permission from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to construct mine shaft 4 at Cayuga Salt Mine.
Matt Steecker / Staff video

Cargill was granted a permit by the DEC in August to construct a $42 million access shaft farther north up the mine to enhance air quality and improve miners’ safety.

Today it takes miners about 50 minutes to travel from the shaft to the current mining location – cutting it relatively close to the state mandate that miners be able to reach above-ground within an hour from their mining location.

The second-to-last set of the 17 Cargill salt miners emerged Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016 after being rescued from an elevator stuck 900 feet below the surface. The elevator was the only exit and Cargill now wants to add a second elevator. (Photo: Simon Wheeler / Staff Photo)

The sole exit of the mine is also the site where 17 miners were trapped for 10 hours 900 feet underground when the shaft elevator malfunctioned in January 2016. The mine closed for nearly two months after the incident, and reopened after the elevator was repaired and inspected.

Cargill site manager Shawn Wilczynski said the Shaft 4 construction project is purely an effort to protect the health and safety of the mine’s employees, but state Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton (D-District 125) said at an October news conference she is not so sure these are Cargill’s motivations.

By constructing a new shaft farther up the lake, Lifton noted that Cargill could potentially expand mining in the future.

A low-profile front-end loader dumps salt onto a conveyor belt in Cargill's Lansing salt mine in 2002.
(Photo: File Photo)

Lifton announced she and state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-District 4) wrote a second letter to the DEC requesting a denial of Cargill’s mining permit renewal, which expired November 1. They also urged the state to issue a moratorium on salt mining until a review of salt mining’s potential environmental impacts is conducted.

On Thursday, Lifton's office said they have not yet received a response from Commissioner Seggos to Lifton and Englebright's second letter .

Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton and environmental activist Walter Hang urge the New York Department of Environmental Conservation to enforce a moratorium against salt mining permit renewals in a news conference in Lifton's Ithaca regional office in October.
(Photo: Sarah Mearhoff / staff photo)

Although Cargill’s mining permit expired in November, the company still is able to operate under their existing permit until the DEC makes a decision on Cargill's permit renewal. Cargill applied for a permit renewal in August.

As Lifton and Englebright noted in their letters, the DEC has not conducted an environmental review of the Cayuga Salt Mine since 2003. Fresh research has emerged in the past 14 years, they said, including that done by SUNY Geneseo Professor of Geology Richard Young that suggested horizontal forces in the Earth could put at risk land destabilized by mining.

Walter Hang discusses the Retsof mine collapse that occurred in Livingston County in 1994 and compares the catastrophe to what he says could happen to Cayuga Lake.
Matt Steecker / Staff video

In response to Lifton and Englebright’s first letter from July, however, DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said Young’s plate tectonics theory is nothing new, and does not constitute a new environmental review.

“The crux of Dr. Young’s presentation is that horizontal forces generated by plate tectonics have not been considered in the design of the mine and constitute new information that needs to be evaluated by DEC,” Seggos wrote. “Plate tectonics theory is now decades old.”

At her October press conference, Lifton pushed back, saying the DEC “says, ‘we’ve got the science down,’ but we show that they don’t.”

Lifton recalled the Retsof, Livingston County, mine collapse of 1994, saying: “The collapse says no, we don’t fully understand this science and we’re better off not taking these risks. This [moratorium] is talking about not taking those risks.”

Salt is stored on the surface of the Cargill salt mine in Lansing in August 2002.
(Photo: File Photo).

A lot would be at risk in the case of Cayuga Salt Mine’s collapse, Lifton said: Ithaca’s tourism economy – largely fueled by the freshwater lake and gorges – and the city’s drinking water supply.

“We all have to be thinking 10 to 20 years ahead,” Lifton said in an interview with The Ithaca Journal. “People need to understand how important fresh water is. We have got to operating on precautionary principle. We just don’t take risks with such previous resources.”

After the October press conference, Tompkins County District 6 Legislator Mike Sigler, who represents Lansing, challenged Lifton’s statements, saying that even if Cargill wanted to expand mining in the future, it would require a new mining permit and a new environmental review.

“They’re not even asking for a review,” Sigler said of the two state legislators in October. “They just want this mine closed, and they don’t care about the 200 people that work there.”

The elevator that carries workers into the Cargill salt mine.
(Photo: SIMON WHEELER / Staff Photo)

Sigler is not the only one to highlight the mine's economic benefits: In October 2016, Tompkins County Industrial Agency approved a $640,000 tax abatement to Cargill to assist in the Shaft 4 construction, and a $2 million grant was allotted to the project in December 2016 at the Regional Economic Development Council awards.

Cargill, Inc. reported that its fiscal 2016 net earnings totalled $2.38 billion.

Throughout all of this – the letters to the DEC, Article 78s filed, passionate public comments made at Ithaca city meetings – Wilczynski said he has rarely been asked to voice his own perspective as an employee with the mine.

“We ultimately have the same goals in mind: to protect the lake,” Wilczynski said. “Cargill has strived for decades to be responsible company. I’m quite proud of our work.”