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Assemblywoman Lifton pushes against Cargill's salt mining under Cayuga Lake


Assemblywoman Barbara LIfton wrote a second letter to the NYSDEC Commissioner pushing against Cargill, Inc.'s salt mining under Cayuga Lake. Sarah Mearhoff

With Cargill, Inc.’s current mining permit expiring Wednesday, New York Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton (D-District 125) and Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-District 4) wrote a second letter to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation urging the department to deny the Lansing mine’s permit renewal.

At a news conference Tuesday, Lifton said she encourages the department to further investigate the environmental effects of mining under Cayuga Lake before reauthorizing Cargill’s decades-old permit, which has not undergone environmental review since 2003.

Until then, Lifton said she encourages DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos to put a moratorium on “permits or authorizations and avoid approving activities, which will directly, or indirectly, lead to salt mining under Cayuga Lake.”

The debate on the environmental equity of the Lansing mine, located under Cayuga Lake, has been reignited with Cargill’s plans to construct its Shaft 4 site. Cargill said the additional shaft would help ensure the safety of the salt miners.

Cargill has permission from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to construct mine shaft 4 at Cayuga Salt Mine. Matt Steecker / Staff video

In their letter, Lifton and Englebright argued that new information has become available since then that said, “It would be shortsighted of the Department to simply renew the permit without fully considering new information and potential adverse environmental implications that have come to light in the roughly 14 years since the last environmental review.”

But in his response to Lifton and Englebright’s first letter, Seggos said the research behind Lifton and Englebright’s letters, conducted by SUNY Geneseo Professor of Geology Richard Young, is anything but new.

Salt is stored on the surface of the Cargill salt mine in Lansing in August 2002. (Photo: File Photo)

“The crux of Dr. Young’s Presentation is that horizontal forces generated by plate tectonics have not been considered in the design of the mine and constitute new information that needs to be evaluated by DEC,” Seggos wrote. “Plate tectonics theory is now decades old.”

He continued, “DEC does not consider the issue of stresses from plate tectonism new information that should initiate a new [State Environmental Quality Review] of the currently permitted mining operation.”

Lifton disagreed.

“The DEC says, ‘we’ve got the science down,’ but we show that they don’t. The [Retsof] collapse says no, we don’t fully understand this science and we’re better off not taking these risks,” she said, referring to the infamous 1994 salt mine collapse in Retsof, New York.

“This [moratorium] is talking about not taking those risks,” Lifton said.

The elevator that carries workers into the Cargill salt mine. (Photo: SIMON WHEELER / Staff Photo)

But Tompkins County District 6 Legislator Mike Sigler, who represents Lansing, said Lifton and Englebright’s concerns are misplaced, pointing out that the Retsof mine was in fact located under dry land.

“They’re not even asking for a review,” Sigler said. “They just want this mine closed, and they don’t care about the 200 people that work there.”

If Cargill wishes to expand its salt mining further under the lake, Sigler said they will have to apply for a new permit, which would entail an environmental review. So while the Shaft 4 construction could allow for the possibility of mining further under the lake, Cargill will have to apply for any mining expansion first.

Area environmental activist Walter Hang, who also presented at Tuesday’s news conference, said, “We have nothing against salt mining. We just have to protect Cayuga Lake from the kind of disaster the DEC was unable to prevent at the Retsof mine.”

He continued, “We want to preserve our local economy, but we also want to protect this incomparable lake.”

Lifton said the time is now to protect the future of Cayuga Lake.

“This is something that we have a responsibility to protect for future generations,” Lifton said. “This isn’t just about us here and now. This is about our children and our grandchildren and their children.”