Cameron Pollack / Sun File Photo

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation and the company Cargill Inc. are under fire for an alleged leak that is allowing sodium ferrocyanide to flow into Cayuga Lake.

March 17, 2019

Controversial Cayuga Lake Salt Mine Lawsuit Still in Court

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Located 2,300 feet under the surface of Cayuga Lake, a seven mile mine cranks out 2 million tons of raw salt every year, which is mostly used to defrost icy roads in Ithaca and across the northeast United States.

Mining salt from under the lake, however, is met with rising concern over its impact on lake salinity. The Department of Environmental Conservation’s approval for Cargill, the nation’s largest privately owned company, to drill a new 2,500 foot-deep hole from ground level was met with local opposition. Cayuga Lake Environmental Action Now, a local activist group, and local governments, including the City of Ithaca, filed a legal action against the DEC and Cargill in 2017.

Cargill, the nation’s largest privately owned company, first received permit to mine under Cayuga Lake in 1975. Named the #4 Shaft Project, the company said the current project “will be used to bring power into the mine closer to the working areas,” according to Cargill’s website.

As the court has not yet reached a decision, Cargill has not suspended its on-site preparation.

Founded by John Dennis Ph.D. ’87 in 2017, CLEAN has been organizing local campaigns against sub-lake mining. The group focuses on water sources in central New York and particularly Cayuga Late, according to Dennis.

“We are not against mining, but we are against mining under the lake. They are mining under the lake because it is much more profitable,” Dennis told The Sun.

Prof. John Warren, geology, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand and director of SaltWork Consultants, told The Sun that because Cayuga Lake was cut by glacial ice before the lake was formed, mining under the lake might cause problems for the support between the lake and the mine.

Cargill conducted its own study examining the likelihood of the risk. The study was reviewed by the New York DEC, but the findings were not released to the public.

Although the New York DEC has already approved the #4 Shaft project, CLEAN, the City and Town of Ithaca, the Town of Ulysses, the Village of Union Springs and other individual plaintiffs demanded an Environmental Impact Statement, which would communicate the risks of the mine to the public.

“What strikes me as odd about this [is] that when Cornell built the lake-source cooling facility, Cornell University was required to do extensive environmental review [and] years of environmental impact statements,” Prof. Clifford Kraft ’75, natural resources, told The Sun. “It seems inconsistent to me that the DEC is not requiring extensive environmental review.”

While many local activists oppose the #4 shaft, they also acknowledged the mine’s financial importance to the area. According to the Cargill website, the mine contributes $4.6 million to the Lansing economy alone.

“I know the mine has employed a lot of people for a long time,” said Hilary Lambert, CLEAN steering committee member. “It is a very valuable part of the Lansing community.”

“While we can’t speak to pending litigation, we can speak to Cargill’s long-standing role as a key employer and good corporate citizen to Tompkins county. This includes consideration of the environment and natural resources that are so vital to the area,” Cargill wrote in an email to The Sun.

Dennis expects the court to release a decision on the case within the next few weeks. Meanwhile, Cargill will continue to publish online updates on the construction of the #4 Shaft project.