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Cargill Salt Mine, DEC accused of Cayuga Lake pollution


The Cargill salt mine sits on the east shore of Cayuga Lake in Lansing.
(Photo: KELLY GAMPEL / Staff Photo)

An independent environmental monitor alleges pollutants were allowed to flow unchecked into Cayuga Lake from the Cargill Salt Mine in Lansing.

Walter Hang, of Toxics Targeting, is accusing the salt mine operators and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation of allowing the flow of sodium ferrocyanide into Cayuga Lake. He indicated the problem may have been ongoing for several months, and maybe years, without detection.

Sodium ferrocyanide, Hang said, is an anti-caking agent used in road de-icing salt, but a substance with low toxicity. Once coming into contact with water, however, the cyanide disassociates, becoming more toxic, according to Hang's research.

"The spill is historical," Hang said, adding that he only uncovered the spill after filing a records request under the New York's Freedom of Information Law. "We don't know how long the release has been going on."

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

Hang is sounding the alarm because Cayuga Lake is the source of drinking water for 30,000 people, and the site of the discharge is just south of Myers Park and a nearby lakeside housing development. Additionally, Hang said, the DEC failed to notify the public of the spill despite what he termed the serious threat it posed.

The DEC and Cargill vigorously disputed Hang's assessment on the duration of the leak.

"During a routine inspection in February 2019, we identified a pipe carrying yellow prussiate of soda, a common salt anti-caking additive, was leaking," said Justin Barber, of Cargill Corporate Affairs. "We immediately repaired and tested the pipe before returning it to service later in the day. In coordination with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, we took numerous actions to ensure the spill was properly cleaned up and regularly monitored the area to make sure there were no additional failures."

Hang insisted a comprehensive state review of salt mine operations is necessary.

Oversight faulted

"Governor Cuomo's stunning inability to safeguard public health and the environment from ongoing Cargill salt mine pollution threats that have plagued Cayuga Lake for more than 40 years is a stark testament to his administration's deplorable record of inadequate regulatory enforcement," said Hang, Toxics Targeting president.

In addition to sodium ferrocyanide, Hang also alleges unknown petroleum products and other materials have never been fully cleaned up at the site, allowing other contaminants to flow into the 38-mile-long lake.

"DEC provides stringent oversight of Cargill and other permitted facilities, and ensures compliance with the laws and regulations in place to protect public health and the environment," a DEC spokesman said.

Leaking was first discovered during a DEC site inspection on Feb. 7, 2019 when inspectors first noted "an area of approximately 10 feet in diameter, near the lake shoreline, had a light green hue."

The source was traced back to a point 500 feet to the south, according to a DEC letter obtained by Hang, "where the green liquid appeared to be seeping out of the ground."

An environmental group is accusing the Cargill Salt Mine and Department of Environmental Conservation of allowing the flow of sodium ferrocyanide into Cayuga Lake.. (Photo: SIMON WHEELER / Staff photo)

Cargill personnel repaired the broken pipe, but Hang said there was no indication how long the substance had been allowed to flow into the lake. Salt mine operators were advised by state monitors to continue to monitor the situation, with regular reports to the DEC required.

"We have no idea how long that break in the line was releasing that contamination into the environment," Hang said. "They found this historical contamination by accident."

Toxics Targeting also is calling for Cargill to end its mining operations under Cayuga Lake because of potential hazards from leakage.

"Cargill has been part of the Lansing and Ithaca community for nearly 50 years, and our miners live and work near Cayuga Lake — the health of the lake and surrounding area is vitally important to us," Barber said. "Cargill’s Cayuga mine has a good environmental track record and history of quick action in response to any concerns. We participate in rigorous environmental monitoring and annual regulatory inspections in compliance with our operating permits."

Hang's Toxics Targeting has been at the forefront of environmental battles in New York, most recently leading the charge against natural gas drilling in the state by hydraulic fracturing. After a years-long debate, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, acting on the recommendation of his health and environmental commissioner, banned the process in New York, citing a potential threat to water quality and public health.