ITHACA, N.Y. – In a press conference Thursday morning, Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton voiced concern for future mining activity below Cayuga Lake, calling for a moratorium on expansions of the Cargill salt mine, a proposal which has mine workers concerned.

Cargill was approved for a $640,000 sales tax abatement by the county in October after the company was seeking the abatement to help fund a new $32 million mine shaft. Without the shaft, Cargill said it would have to cease operations within a decade.

The abatement drew criticism community members who were concerned about the environmental impact while others felt the multi-billion dollar company should not be granted a tax abatement.The DEC previously issued a declaration of negative environmental significance in regards to the project and Tompkins County Legislature voted down a resolution in November which would have required Cargill to perform a full environmental impact review before moving ahead with the expansion.

Currently, Cargill salt mines are spread over seven miles below Cayuga Lake. Cargill employs about 200 people and produces more than 2 million tons of rock salt annually, half of which stays within New York State, according to Mine Manager Shawn Wilczynski. 

Lifton, accompanied by Walter Hang of Toxics Targeting, said Thursday that given potential threats the Cargill salt mine poses upon the lake she felt it was necessary to call on the DEC and alert the agency of the matter.

Lifton shared a letter, which was written jointly with Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee Chair Steve Englebright, in regards to her concerns about potential threats future salt mining could have on Cayuga Lake. The letter calls on the DEC to impose a moratorium on future expansions of the mine and avoid approving permits that would lead to additional salt mining locations under Cayuga Lake.

“A key question is whether relatively new “small pillar” mining techniques used at the site may be insufficient to resist powerful geologic sources associated with both the continental scale compression that is impacting the glacial valley sediments and the glacial scour weakened lithified strata that is the overburden,” the letter reads.

Related: Cargill mine expansion narrowly avoids call for full environmental review

Over the past six months, Lifton said she has heard increasing concerns from her constituents in the 125th assembly district in regards to the matter. In a recent meeting with DEC officials, Lifton said SUNY Geneseo Professor Richard Young presented research comparing the Cayuga mines to the Retsof salt mine, which collapsed in Livingston County in 1994.

“Retsof was one of the nation’s biggest salt mines and the worst salt mining disaster in New York State,” Lifton said. “When the mine collapsed it flooded with water resulting in immense sinkholes, property damage and had an impact on local water wells. It took two years for the mine to refill with water from surrounding aquifers.”

According to Hang and Lifton, Young’s research suggested that there were clear parallels between the Retsof and Cayuga mines. Hang said both mines used a relatively new mining technique which employs small pillars.

“The geological horizontal forces are pushing in from the side,” Hang said. “This has the effect of creating a force that is moving up from the bottom of Cayuga Lake.”

Lifton said her goal was not to put a stop to salt mining entirely, but instead to continue work in existing mines and transition mining efforts onto dry land. Since mining companies only have to negotiate with the state over mineral rights underwater, if Cargill were to begin mining efforts on dry land they would also have to begin negotiation efforts with property owners. Lifton said the transition period would happen over the course of several years.

“This is a perfect time to begin to phase out mining under the lake and begin to mine salt under the dry land in the adjoining area,” Lifton said. “This would completely safeguard the lake without causing loss of jobs, but the lake comes first when it comes to preventing these pollution problems.”

Because of federal law, Hang said additional expansion to the mines will not be possible since miners are required to have to make it out within an hour.

Wilczynski said the proposed shaft was more of a precaution to ensure the health and safety of miners below the lake. He said that currently, it takes about 45 to 50 minutes for miners to get to the current mining location. 

“We do struggle to provide fresh air and an escape way that would be closer to where (miners) are working,” he said. “The main reason for the shaft is for the health and safety of our employees, which seems to be getting lost when it is purely that simple.”

As part of the expansion agreement, Wilczynski said a minimum of three to four mine stability reviews are conducted annually at the underwater location, dating back to 2003. He said seven years of analysis and comprehensive study of the lake served as a foundation for the company since 2002, which they continue to modify.

Wilczynski said Cargill has agreed to meet with the DEC once a year as a part of the expansion terms. The company is also required to provide an annual report to the DEC which is verified by two other parties, and the raw data is then sent to a third party for independent review.

“We all do share the exact same things – the protection and sustainability of the lake is important to everybody involved,” he said. “We are members of this community as well, as are our families and friends. We are reminded every day when we show up to work – the lake is a constant reminder and we take extreme responsibility for that and go to great lengths and will continue to do so.”

Alyvia Covert

Alyvia is a Crime Reporter with The Ithaca Voice. She graduated from Ithaca College with a degree in Journalism and Photography.