The Cuomo Administration faces mounting pressure from activists, town boards and state legislators to fully apply state environmental law to Cargill’s giant salt mine under Cayuga Lake.
A legal showdown in court looks inevitable.
For decades, the state has allowed the nation’s largest private company to use its best judgement in conducting sub-lake mining operations. It has never required a full environmental impact statement for the seven-mile, 10,000-acre-plus project, and it has zealously kept details of the growing risks under lock and key.
In recent weeks, calls have intensified for details on the science behind the dangers involved — if not for a total ban on all salt mining under the lake.
The biggest concern is the rising risk of a catastrophic mine flood. As Cargill pushes north into sections where the bedrock buffer to the lake thins out, chances for a breach are seen as increasingly likely. Independent scientists say a mine flood could trigger a disastrous mix of super-salty brine from the mine with the lake itself, jeopardizing Cayuga’s status as a drinking water source for 31,000.
Although the state has required the company to post a security deposit of $3.5 million, that would likely be a tiny fraction of the bill taxpayers would be stuck with if things got ugly and Cargill bolted. The state has never required a closure plan.
Since September, the towns of Ithaca, Ulysses, Trumansburg, Danby, Aurora, Caroline, and Union Springs have passed resolutions supporting a lawsuit aimed at forcing a full public airing of the geologic risks.
Meanwhile, State Assembly members Barbara Lifton (D-Ithaca) and Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) have called for the state Department of Environmental Conservation to halt all permitting for mining under the lake. They want all future salt mining to be conducted under dry land.
In two letters to the DEC earlier this Fall, the legislators raised the specter of the 1994 collapse of Retsof, the largest salt mine in North America, near Geneseo, where geologic forces are strikingly similar to those under Cayuga.
When the Retsof roof gave way, water from an aquifer rushed in. Land above the mine sank several feet, damaging houses, roads and bridges. Some private wells produced salt water or simply went dry.
The DEC has all but brushed off any Retsof parallels.
The state permit for Cargill’s Cayuga mine expired Nov. 1, but the DEC allows mining to continue. It’s all perfectly legal, the agency notes, because Cargill has applied for an extension.
The granting of that indefinite grace period is ironic, activists argue, in light of evidence the company has been violating the terms of the expired permit.
Emails between DEC officials confirm that Cargill ignored permit-required 1,000-foot setbacks from geological “anomalies” — sections too dangerous to mine.
In a Feb. 2, 2016 email, the DEC’s Simone Rodriguez asked the DEC’s Steve Army and Christopher Lucidi to confirm that an internal report showed Cargill had mined within 1,000 feet of the “Frontenac Point Anomaly.” That report indicated that “NW2 probably shouldn’t have been mined” because it violated “permit condition 9a,” she wrote.
“You are correct,” Army replied minutes later. “NW2 was advanced into the 1000’ setback, and yes, it is the same setback mentioned in the permit.”
Another email from Cargill mining engineer Dave Plumeau to the DEC’s Army and Lucidi explained that the company had switched to larger mine pillars out of concern about weakness in the roof. “This design provides better support for the overburden and creates lower stress changes within the strata above the mine,” Plumeau wrote on Nov. 4, 2016.
If Cargill has been violating setback requirements and changing pillar designs without first obtaining or even seeking permission from the DEC, then any state permit renewal must include a detailed environmental review, according to John Dennis, a member of the steering committee of the group CLEAN, or Cayuga Lake Environmental Action Now.
Dennis laid out his argument in an Oct. 9 letter to DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos and the directors of DEC Regions 7 and 8, the jurisdictions that oversee the Cargill mine.
Any switch from “yielding pillar” mine design to “large pillar” design involves safety tradeoffs that are widely acknowledged within the industry, and it merits thorough analysis, Dennis wrote.
Setback violations aren’t trivial either, Dennis said. “The issue of whether DEC-mandated setbacks are binding requirements … or ‘recommendations’ that Cargill is free to ignore is another example of an issue that needs detailed review,” Dennis wrote.
If Cuomo’s environmental regulators ignore Dennis and rubber stamp Cargill’s mine permit renewal, CLEAN promises to sue to force a rigorous public environmental review.
The Town of Ulysses, which borders the lake and the mine on the west, supports CLEAN’s planned legal initiative.
In a resolution enacted Nov. 14, the town said the DEC must scrupulously follow the State Environmental Quality Review Act, or SEQR, when considering permit renewal. So far, the risks to Cayuga Lake (and Ulysses’ drinking water) “have not been property reviewed and vetted under SEQR.”
The Ulysses resolution expressed the town’s willingness to join a lawsuit that seeks to force the first draft environmental impact statement under SEQR rules since Cargill bought the mine in 1970.
But the DEC is under no deadline to resolve the mine permit renewal. It routinely allows companies to operate for years under expired permits, especially if a renewal threatens to open up a can of worms.
Far more pressing is the question of whether the DEC will be dragged to court to defend a controversial permitting victory it awarded Cargill in August. The deadline to sue in that case falls next week.
The permit allows Cargill to drill — without any special environmental review —an 14-foot wide air shaft in Lansing that connects to the northern end of the mine.
Under federal regulations, miners must be able to evacuate a mine within one hour. Cargill employees working 2,000 feet underground at the northern end of the mine are now almost an hour’s drive from the nearest air shaft. Cargill is bumping up against the federal time limit. The new air shaft, known as Shaft 4, would provide them a safety margin. It would also enable the company to expand mining to the north without tripping over the federal regulation.
In a July 13 letter, Lifton and Englebright, a geologist who chairs the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee, explicitly warned DEC Commissioner Seggos not to grant the Shaft 4 permit because it would “directly or indirectly, lead to (further) salt mining under the lake.”
Seggos dismissed their concerns. In his written response to the legislators Oct. 17, he said the air shaft “does not immediately impact the mine or mining operations.”
Members of CLEAN contend that Cargill shrewdly laid the groundwork for the assertion that Shaft 4 has nothing to do with mining operations.
First, in 2015 it sought permission to mine a narrow, one-mile strip of 150 acres that links the main mine to the spot where Shaft 4 would be drilled. That application disavowed any connection to a future air shaft that might eventually be built at its terminus.
“All activities associated with this modification will take place underground, and there will be no additional surface development associated with this proposal,” the DEC’s April 2015 public notice stated. Two months later the DEC approved the expansion.
The following summer, when Cargill published plans for Shaft 4, it insisted that the air shaft project had nothing to do with mining operations.
That prompted Rob Mackenzie of Trumansburg to complain to the agency that the company had purposely separated the projects to sidestep an environmental review.
“The DEC and the public were badly misled by Cargill in its application to mine the 150 acres necessary to reach the subsurface location where Mine Shaft 4 is now located,” Mackenzie wrote in November 2016.
Meanwhile, CLEAN began to cite the conclusions of several independent geologists, including Raymond Vaughan of Buffalo and Richard Young of Geneseo, that mine flooding and lake salinization were real threats if Cargill’s mining continued its northward march under a gradually thinning mine roof. In fact, they argued, the drilling of the shaft itself might lead to dangerous mine flooding.
Both of those areas of concern are overblown, according to Lawrence M. Cathles III, a Cornell professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.
In two lengthy and technical open letters to Gov. Andrew Cuomo this past summer, Cathles said the DEC was perfectly justified in approving the Shaft 4 project without a special environmental review.
A website emblazoned with Cornell’s seal links to those open letters dismissing the risks cited by CLEAN, the towns and the state legislators. “Natural flow through Lake Cayuga and the slow nature of mine collapse means that flooding of the Cayuga mine does not pose a significant risk of lake salinification,” the website states.
Cathles is no stranger to scientific debates with political overtones. At the height of the fracking debate in 2012, he skirmished for months with fellow Cornell scientists Robert Howarth and Tony Ingraffea (now retired) after ripping their landmark article on fugitive methane emissions from natural gas drilling. Cathles has also expressed skepticism about orthodox stances on climate change.
By publicly wading into the controversy over the Shaft 4 permit, Cathles lent intellectual heft to Cargill’s argument and provided Seggos political cover to grant the permit without an environmental review.
The company was pleased by Seggos’ decision, saying it enhanced ventilation and safety for its miners.
“Cargill followed the rigorous environmental review process established by the DEC,” said Shawn Wilczynski, the mine’s manager. “We felt the DEC made the right decision based on science, the information compiled to support the permit issuance and the independent analysis completed that ensures the shaft poses no threat of significant environmental impact.”
But Walter Hang of Ithaca, a veteran environmental activist who has worked closely with Lifton and Englebright, expressed deep skepticism this week about the DEC’s ability to compel Cargill to mine safely under Cayuga.
Even CLEAN’s efforts to compel rigorous environmental review are probably in vain because they stop short of insisting on an outright ban on salt mining under the lake, Hang said. He’s gathered nearly 800 signatures on a letter calling for a ban on sub-lake mining.
At a CLEAN forum in June, Hang urged the group to get more overtly political.
“If you rely on the DEC to protect this lake, they’re just not going to do it,” said Hang, president of Toxics Targeting. “… We need a political campaign … the same kind of battle against Gov. Cuomo that won the fight against shale fracking.”
But Brian Eden said CLEAN has chosen a more nuanced approach of attempting to engage with Cargill.
Eden wonders what might happen if Cargill were to be forced to abruptly halt sub-lake mining and then determines it can’t make a profit from new mining under land nearby. That might leave the company with little incentive to hang around long enough to close the mine safely.