LANSING, May 21, 2020 — In a proposed settlement of a federal lawsuit, Cargill Inc. has agreed to pay more than $300,000 and take steps to minimize salt dust and salt runoff into streams near its salt mine under Cayuga Lake.
The company’s planned corrective actions are spelled out in a consent decree that would resolve the lawsuit filed last August by Our Children’s Earth Foundation, which alleges violations of the Clean Water Act and other federal laws.
Cargill did not admit wrongdoing, but it agreed to pay $150,000 in attorneys fees and litigation costs and to donate $150,000 to Ducks Unlimited, a non-profit environmental group that promotes healthy wetlands. It will also pay the foundation $18,000 for monitoring compliance for three years.
In addition, Cargill agreed to enclose a bulk salt storage area to reduce airborne salt and to investigate and reduce salty runoff from its property into the lake and nearby streams.
“The site improvements are going to be far more costly that the immediate costs of the lawsuit,” said Annie Beaman an attorney and spokesperson for Our Children’s Earth.
Kaye DeLange, vice president of Cargill’s Salt Group and a signer of the consent agreement, did not return emails seeking details on those costs.
Beaman said the company proved to be quite willing to correct the legal violations alleged.
“From the beginning, the legal teams were definitely in settlement mode rather than let’s-fight-this-out-in-court mode,” said Beaman (left). “They saw the merits in our lawsuit. And my sense is they intend to continue or probably even expand (Cayuga salt mining) operations, so they want to do that without these litigation sideshows.”
Our Children’s Earth has been represented by Edan Rotenberg of Super Law Group LLC. Rotenberg had filed a detailed letter of intent to sue in April 2019, four months before the foundation filed its lawsuit.
The foundation also teamed with the local non-profit group CLEAN (Cayuga Lake Environmental Action Now), which had compiled much of the data supporting the lawsuit allegations.
That included the results of monitoring chloride, PH, conductivity and sodium concentrations in runoff from the the Cargill site on the east side of the lake between Portland Point and Myers Park, roughly five miles north of Ithaca.
The lawsuit noted ecological impacts on Minnegar Brook, which runs immediately north of Cargill’s three bulk salt storage pads, and Gulf Creek, which runs just south of the Cargill property. Both streams empty into Cayuga Lake, carrying pollutants during stormwater runoffs.
The lawsuit notes a “decline in vegetation” on the downslopes from the salt storage pads to Minnegar Brook and alleges that salty leachate from the piles has boosted the stream’s salinity.
That change has led to a shift to more “saline-tolerant” organisms and “wholesale elimination of mayflies from the lower reaches of Minnegar Brook,” the lawsuit claims.
While Cargill has state permits to discharge at specified points on its property, it is not authorized to discharge into Minnegar Brook, according to the suit.
Minnesota-based Cargill, the nation’s largest private company, also committed to installing dust-suppression equipment in the area where a conveyor belt deposits salt adjacent to the bulk storage pads.
Salt residue coats a car parked at a private residence several hundred yards northwest of Cargill’s three bulk salt storage pads in Lansing. Cargill has agreed to take steps to reduce airborne salt.
The pad nearest the lake will be covered by a roof and enclosed on three sides to reduce exposure to wind and rain.
A bulk loading tower next to the pad will be fitted with equipment designed to minimize salt dust created when trucks are loaded.
Cargill also agreed to investigate salty runoff flowing from the hillside on its property and to take steps to treat that water before discharging it into the lake. Other corrective actions are spelled out in a two-part Best Management Practice plan, BMP1 and BMP2, referred to in the consent agreement.
Overall, Cayuga Lake’s salinity levels exceed all but one of the other 10 Finger Lakes (Seneca Lake’s is higher).
“Salt mining has already raised sodium levels in the lake to twice the (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) threshold for people with hypertension,” CLEAN reports on its website.
Stephanie Redmond (right), a researcher for CLEAN, said the Cargill site “is negatively affecting the water quality and health of (Cayuga Lake).”
“All (salt) mining should be stopped,” she added, “particularly salt mining under, near or connected to the lake. All salt storage should be contained and not allowed to run off unchecked into the lake.”
Cargill bought the salt mine in 1970. The state, which owns the lake and the salt under it, has authorized the company to mine about 13,400 acres under most of the southern third of the lake.
Independent scientists have warned that the risks of a catastrophic mine collapse or mine flooding will rise as the company’s operations edge north because the bedrock barrier between the mine and lake bottom tends to thin out.
CLEAN, Ithaca-based Toxics Targeting Inc. and several politicians have called on Cargill to stop all mining under the lake. In July 2017, Walter Hang of Toxic Targeting and Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton (D-Ithaca) held a press conference (shown at left) to call for a moratorium on Cayuga Lake salt mining.
In what may be a response to that campaign, the company has recently acquired mining leases on several hundred acres of land in Lansing. But it hasn’t given any public signal that it plans to halt its sub-lake mining.
Meanwhile, Beaman of Our Children’s Earth said she expects Cargill’s corrective actions outlined in the consent agreement to have a “positive impact” on the lake’s salinity.
John Dennis of CLEAN said he hoped the improvements would lower salinity in the Myers Park area, if not the entire lake.
The proposed consent agreement must be approved by the federal judge hearing the case in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York.
The U.S. Justice Department, which represents the EPA, is authorized to intervene in the matter within 45 days, but has not indicated that it plans to do so.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation grants Cargill permits to discharge wastewater into the lake under certain conditions. The DEC, which is not a party to the lawsuit against Cargill, declined to comment on the proposed consent agreement.
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