Towns of Ithaca and Ulysses Among the Challengers of a Permit Allowing Construction of an Air Shaft in Lansing
Charging that drinking water drawn from Cayuga Lake is imperiled by the state’s lax oversight, the Town of Ithaca and other nearby municipalities have filed suit to challenge a permit allowing Cargill Inc. to expand its salt mining under the lake.
The Article 78 lawsuit, filed Dec. 13 in state Supreme Court of Tompkins County, names Cargill, the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the state Office of General Services as defendants.
Other plaintiffs include the City of Ithaca, the Town of Ulysses and the Village of Union Springs, nine individuals and the group CLEAN, or Cayuga Lake Environmental Action Now.
The suit asks the court to void a permit granted by the DEC in August that allows Cargill to dig an air shaft in Lansing that would connect to a tunnel linking to the main section of Cargill’s sprawling salt mine under the lake. The suit asks for an injunction blocking construction of the shaft.
In granting the permit, the DEC held that the so-called “Shaft No. 4” was an independent project that didn’t directly impact future mining and therefore did not require a full environmental impact statement.
The suit claims that Shaft 4 is an integral part of Cargill’s plan to continue mining operations northward under the lake “for an additional 30 years.” Plaintiffs allege that the one-mile tunnel was also part of that long-term plan, even though the DEC inaccurately advertised the tunnel project as unrelated to any future air shaft at its terminus.
In fact, the air shaft would be needed to meet federal mine safety rules that would apply to any significant sub-lake expansion of the mine in Cargill’s northern reserves. The state OGS is a named defendant because it leases sub-lake mineral rights to Cargill.
The suit claims that the DEC violated the State Environmental Quality Review Act, or SEQR, when it separated the three projects — Shaft 4, the one-mile tunnel and mine expansion to the north — and used that separation to justify waiving a full environmental impact statement on any of them.
At stake in the case, the suit says, is “the ecological health of Cayuga Lake and the closely associated ecotourism in the entire Cayuga Lake region, as well as the health and drinking water supplies of its citizens.
CLEAN, which took the lead in developing the lawsuit and inviting municipalities to participate, said its scientific experts are concerned that the Cargill mine could flood. Those risks stem from either a potential breach while mining northern sections, where the bedrock separating the mine from the lake thins out, or from drilling Shaft 4 itself. Cargill said both those risks are under control.
The suit said any future flooding of the mine would likely worsen Cayuga’s existing problem of high salinity.
“Sodium levels in Cayuga Lake are more than twice as high as the level the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) and health authorities recognize as hazardous for persons with hypertension,” the suit says.
“If there is a mine collapse, if the reaming of Shaft No. 4 leads to mine flooding, if the mine is intentionally flooded at decommissioning, if mine-related brine and salt dust releases into the lake continue and/or if mining-related subsidence perturbs any saline artesian aquifer under the lake, the existing salinity problems in Cayuga Lake may be exacerbated. Such outcomes would adversely affect those City of Ithaca residents who rely on lake water for their water supply.”
The suit says 96% of the residents in the Town of Ithaca get water from Cayuga, more than 19,000 people. Some Ulysses residents also use Cayuga for drinking water, while Union Springs residents do not.
The suit seeks judgment under Article 78 of the New York Civil Practice Laws and Rules.
Shawn Wilczynski, manager of the Cargill Cayuga mine, did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment on the suit, although the company may not have been served with court papers yet. A spokesperson for the DEC said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.