Signs of Sustainability: Lack of regulation leads to courthouse showdown

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Cayuga Lake is at risk. Our beloved lake provides drinking water for over 40,000 people residing in at least six municipalities, not to mention the numerous private wells along the entire shoreline. However, the quality of Cayuga’s waters is threatened by nutrient-loading manure from large farms, Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs), contaminants leaching from several coal-ash landfills, salt from our heavily salted roads, and brine from an extensive under-lake salt mine with its associated permitted and unpermitted discharges to the lake.


What can we do to protect this invaluable resource?
One major step is to ensure that environmental protocols are being followed and when they are not, we must STAND UP FOR CAYUGA LAKE. The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is supposed to be the watchdog that ensures that our resources are being protected, but the DEC is severely understaffed, under-budgeted, and lacks expertise in some areas. Most importantly, the DEC has never required the level of environmental review for the Cargill mine that would be required for equivalent or much smaller projects.


On Monday, Nov. 26 at 12:45 p.m., Cayuga Lake Environmental Action Now (CLEAN) is holding a rally outside the Tompkins County Courthouse to protest the adverse impacts of salt mining on Cayuga Lake. A final round of oral arguments starts at 1:30 p.m. in the courthouse and the public is invited to attend. CLEAN, four municipalities and 10 citizens have filed an Article 78 proceeding against the DEC for failing to require proper environmental review when assessing Cargill’s proposed new Shaft number four project in Lansing.


CLEAN has brought forth numerous substantial arguments for why constructing a 16-foot diameter, 2,500-foot depth shaft in North Lansing involves sufficient significant risks that necessitate a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The reaming of the shaft might encounter fractures in the bedrock that creates a hydraulic connection to the lake resulting in the flooding of the mine. Cargill’s plan to store millions of gallons of shaft leakage water in an unstable portion of their mine under the lake could threaten the global stability of the mine. A mine collapse, similar to that which occurred in 1994 at the Retsof Salt Mine in Livingston County could establish a hydraulic connection between the mine and the lake itself, leading to even greater salinization of the lake for hundreds of years. Prevention is always better than a clean-up so a careful environmental review that addresses such issues would be far better than trying to deal with long-term salinity problems after they occur. Since Cargill’s tiny $3.5 million environmental-damage escrow account is far too small to deal with any major problems that arise, the state and taxpayers would end up paying most of the cost.


The NYS DEC has failed Cayuga Lake by never considering any potential impacts the shaft could have on the future of the mine under the lake. Cargill stated in an application to the Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency that shaft number four is “REQUIRED” for continued mining under the lake. Clearly, the shaft is directly tied to the future of the mine under the lake and the DEC should have treated their review of the permit as such rather than as a separate project unrelated to the mine under the lake.


In the broader picture, Cargill claims they support the “sustainability” of Cayuga Lake, but there is no evidence that Cargill has ever hired experts to assess the impacts of road salt on freshwater resources or their brine releases in Cayuga and Seneca Lakes. The Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies (caryinstitute.org) has documented that road salt is a major factor in the increasing salinization of waterways in the Northeastern United States. Salt mining and the application of road salt to highways in the lake watershed has already doubled the sodium content of the lake, pushing it to more than twice the sodium content than is recommended for people with hypertension.


Cayuga Lake is owned by the State, as a steward for all humans and wildlife. It’s time for the DEC to be held accountable and force Cargill to make the safety of Cayuga Lake a priority. Is it too much to ask that proper environmental review be completed? We believe it’s not. We shall see the DEC and Cargill at the Tompkins County Courthouse on Monday, Nov. 26, 2018, starting with a rally at 12:45 p.m. Join us as we STAND UP FOR CAYUGA LAKE!

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