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NY Dept. of Environmental Conservation, Cargill Face Accusations of Polluting Cayuga Lake


The New York Department of Environmental Conservation and the company Cargill Inc. are under fire for an alleged leak that is allowing sodium ferrocyanide to flow into Cayuga Lake.

A local environmental database organization is accusing The New York Department of Environmental Conservation and Cargill Inc. of allowing sodium ferrocyanide — a compound used in salt mining that becomes toxic when exposed to sunlight — to flow undetected into Cayuga Lake from the Cayuga Salt Mine in Lansing.

Cargill, the nation’s largest privately held company, has operated the mine under Cayuga Lake since 1970. Walter Hang, president of a toxic site database Toxics Targeting, told The Sun in an interview earlier in October that the DEC issued a notice of violation to Cargill on Feb. 12, after the agency reported a green discharge seeping from a broken pipe into the lake at the company’s 13,000-acre salt mine.

According to Hang, the DEC failed to notify the public of the sodium ferrocyanide discharge, even though it was “a serious environmental problem in mining.” Hang’s environmental group broke the story last month, noting that the discharge could have threatened the Cayuga Lake drinking water supply, which serves approximately 40,000 residents in Ithaca and neighboring communities.

While consuming sodium ferrocyanide in salt — where it is used as an anti-caking product — is harmless, the compound can become hazardous when released into the environment. The National Center for Biotechnology Information warns in all capital letters, “Do not expose [the] solution to sunlight for any length of time to avoid generation of hydrogen cyanide.”

Cargill has since removed 400 tons of polluted soil and wastewater at the mining site to clean up the discharge, the Ithaca Times reported. But the company stopped excavation efforts when railroad tracks interfered with the remediation process. As a result, the contaminated area has not yet been cleaned up to meet New York State regulatory standards, Hang said in an online letter.

However, the DEC and Cargill disputed Hang’s claim that these organizations have not fully remediated the polluted area.

“We immediately repaired and tested the pipe before returning it to service later in the day,” Cargill told The Sun in a statement. “In coordination with the DEC, 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.”

The DEC said in an email to The Sun that the agency immediately notified the Cayuga and Tompkins Counties’ health departments to ensure that the discharge did not threaten the drinking water or create other related health concerns.

Still, Hang said Cargill has historically failed to prevent unpermitted discharges from flowing into Cayuga Lake, beyond the recent sodium ferrocyanide report.

After filing a records request under the New York Freedom of Information Law, Hang said public data documented decades of excessive levels of chlorides, cyanides and other pollutants discharging from Cargill’s Lansing salt mine into Cayuga Lake.

“I found out that these illegal, unpermitted discharges had been happening since 1977,” Hang said. “This has been going on for 40 years.”

Hang is urging Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) to investigate the pollution and require Cargill to clean up the contaminants. More than 1,000 Ithaca residents and other concerned individuals have signed a coalition letter to safeguard Cayuga Lake.

Beyond pollution concerns, the letter also asks Cuomo to deny permits for mining expansion and “phase out” Cargill’s mining activity under the lake, allowing only dry land mining to preserve this “incomparable jewel as well as a critical component of the regional economy.”

“We’re saying, [Cargill] has dozens of these problems,” Hang told The Sun. “They have to investigate and remediate the whole site. They can’t continue to allow these pollution problems to go unremediated … We now know that these pollution problems are a lot more severe than anyone ever understood.”