Did you know there’s a 13,000 acre Salt Mine under Lansing and Cayuga Lake?
By Deborah Dawson and Cait Darfler
Seven of us arrived at the NY DEC Region 7 Headquarters on Monday May 1st, 2017 for a meeting with the Regional Director, Matt Marko, and 6 other DEC lawyers and scientists. For some in this group of Tompkins County residents, geologists, activists and Lake lovers, this has been a fight for over 30 years to bring transparency and environmental review to the massive salt mine under our precious Lake; for others, this is the first step.
How did we get here?
Solution salt mining began at the south end Cayuga Lake 1890s, and by the early 1900s the salinity of the lake was higher than that of any other unmined Finger Lake. Cargill bought the 50-year-old room and pillar Cayuga Salt Mine in 1970. At the time, mining operations were entirely under the Town of Lansing on the east side of Cayuga Lake. Historically, mine operators simply dumped their tons of salt fines into the Lake, polluting the lake and making it saline. To its credit, Cargill stopped that polluting practice, and chloride levels in the Lake dropped accordingly. The passage in 1972 of what is now the Clean Water Act made the practice of dumping salt fines in the lake illegal.
In 1986, Cargill expanded its mining operations into salt deposits under Cayuga Lake. This was easier and more profitable for Cargill: rather than negotiating mineral rights with multiple land owners, Cargill only had to deal with New York State, which owns the Lake and the mineral rights, and charges only a modest fee per ton for the salt Cargill mines.
By 2012, Cargill had extended its mining operations under the Lake northward for six miles. This meant that miners had to travel more than 45 minutes to get from the access shaft to the mining area. Since Federal mine safety laws and regulations require that miners must be able to evacuate a mine within an hour, this situation was unsustainable. Cargill began looking for a way to build an access shaft farther north in Lansing, closer to current mining operations. And that brings us to why we were meeting with the NYS DEC on a Monday morning, and the beginning of grassroots resistance to Cargill’s expansion plans.
In 2012 Cargill bought a 57-acre parcel on east side of the Lake, across from the iconic Taughannock Falls State Park, and began planning what has become known as the “Shaft 4” project. Shaft 4 was originally proposed as an “air shaft,” but, as Cargill’s plans have unfolded over time, it is clear that it will be used for ventilation, electricity, materials supply, and three shifts of worker access to the mine. This “mission creep,” coupled with Cargill’s improper segmentation of the project into 1-mile connecting tunnel portion and a 2,500’ deep vertical shaft portion and Cargill’s limited, selective, and, more recently, adversarial approach to “sharing” information about both project components, has aggravated residents’ and scientists’ concerns about the safety of the overall mine and the impact that the expansion enabled by the shaft could have on Cayuga Lake and the surrounding area.
A small group of residents and scientific experts, led by local activist John Dennis and Tompkins County Environmental Management Council Chairman Brian Eden, have been filing requests for information under New York’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), and lobbying the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), to obtain information that would allow objective third-party experts to determine what environmental risks the mine expansion and Shaft 4 project actually pose. FOIL requests are often denied because Cargill claims that much of the requested information is proprietary and protected by the FOIL’s “trade secrets” exemption.
Although the DEC could issue a permit for the Shaft 4 project at any day, and the official public commenting period closed in Dec of 2016, those who believe that this shaft urgently needs substantive and unbiased environmental review continue to fight daily for our Lake. The meeting on May 1st with the DEC was another attempt to show documented scientific evidence that this project has many unanswered technical questions remaining.
Cargill is the world’s largest privately owned corporation. Its fiscal 2016 gross revenues were $107 billion, compared to New York State’s 2016 combined tax revenues of $70.6 billion. Cargill enjoys the financial rewards of its $50+ million investment in mining operations under Cayuga Lake, but pays no real property taxes because the mine is technically owned by New York State. At the same time, Cargill does not deign to recognize the DEC’s statutory right to evaluate and regulate its underground mining operations. Cargill provides the DEC with incomplete information about the mine’s environmental impact, prevails upon the DEC to withhold information under FOIL, and has so far managed to avoid having to provide even a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) in connection with any mine expansion or related project undertaken since it acquired the mine in 1970. Consequently, recent grassroots efforts have focused on persuading the DEC to require a DEIS before it issues a permit for the Shaft 4 project. The DEC is requiring a DEIS at the Hampton Corners Salt Mine in Livingston County as part of an application to expand. Cargill should be required to provide the same level of environmental review.
Larger numbers of Tompkins County residents, scientists and activists are becoming concerned and taking action against Cargill’s expanded footprint in Lansing and under Cayuga Lake. Geologists, hydrologists, and environmentalists have raised serious questions about the potential impact of expanded mining operations on surrounding areas, and on Cayuga Lake itself. The Lake is the source of drinking water, the centerpiece of our eco- and agro- tourism industries, and an overall economic driver for our region. Cayuga Lake, which is believed to be a multi-billion dollar asset, has a risk of becoming salinized if the mine is ever flooded. And yet, DEC only requires Cargill to place in escrow $3.5 million in financial security. At the very least, we believe that DEC should require Cargill to provide a DEIS before it is allowed to endanger our Lake by expanding its operations beneath Cayuga’s waters.