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‘Frontenac Point Anomaly’: Cayuga Lake’s salt mining hazard located

Although the potentially dangerous Frontenac Point Anomaly has no precise location, size or shape within Cargill Inc.’s vast salt mine under Cayuga Lake, the state purports to prohibit mining within 1000 feet of it.

Cargill mines salt 2300 feet below the surface of Cayuga Lake.

The Department of Environmental Conservation imposed restrictions on the unstable rock formation in February, at least 23 years after it first recognized it as a risk to leak or collapse.

But even as it has imposed the 1000-foot setback for salt mining, the agency still refuses to specify the FPA’s boundaries. Nor will it explain how it is possible to enforce a specific setback from an undefined area.

As Rod Serling might have said, the Frontenac Point Anomaly is located at the intersection of mining profits and mining safety … in the Twilight Zone.

The DEC has been aware of the FPA at least as far back as 1998, when “concerns focused on the global stability of the mine, the potential inundation of the mine thus affecting the safety of the miners, and the potential of adversely affecting Cayuga Lake,” according to a Feb. 22, 2018 letter to the agency from John T. Boyd Co., a mining consultant.

In June, the FPA became the focal point of a pending lawsuit against Cargill and the DEC that seeks to restrict mining around several worrisome rock formations and a “continuous trough of thin bedrock” that extends almost five miles under the lake. Plaintiffs allege that the agency has neglected its responsibility to independently assess those risks.

The company and the agency have won previous court challenges, and they have filed motions to dismiss this latest one on a technicality.

For more than three decades, Cargill has mined salt on leased state property 2,300 feet beneath the surface of Cayuga Lake. Its mining reserves under the lake cover 9,500 acres.

Cargill’s salt mining operations in Lansing.

The DEC has supervised the company’s mining activity as it has worked its way northward into riskier sections where the bedrock between the lake and the mine thins.

The company has long insisted that many of its documents that address geologic risk are proprietary and not for public eyes. The DEC has consistently deferred to Cargill and ruled against public access.

The agency has never ordered Cargill to prepare an environmental impact statement on the Cayuga mine, despite the state law that requires an EIS if a project is “determined to have potentially significant adverse environmental impacts.” The EIS process, which emphasizes public involvement, is designed to protect communities from being blind-sided by environmental calamity.

The latest flashpoint in DEC’s stanch defense of Cargill’s mining secrets came in February when it modified the company’s mining permit in what it called “mostly housekeeping changes.”

In addition to establishing the 1000-foot setback from the undefined FPA, the agency also ceded to Cargill its hiring and firing authority over the consultant John T. Boyd Co.

For many years, Cargill has paid Boyd on behalf of the DEC (and will continue to do so, the agency says). But the DEC had managed the relationship, and the former permit expressly reserved the agency’s right to change consultants.

The permit modification altered that, declaring that the company would be responsible for “retaining … funding and managing” Boyd. “The consultant is Cargill’s consultant,” it stated.

When lawyers for the DEC asserted in a July 26 court filing that the new consultant provision “did not relinquish any of the (DEC’s) authority,” they overlooked the fact the agency lost the right to hire and fire the consultant.

The lawsuit filed in June by the group CLEAN (Cayuga Lake Environmental Action Now) and several individuals seeks to restore the previous permit language, allowing DEC “to manage their own consultant.”

If the permit modification language stands, mine safety documents will become even less accessible to the public under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, according to John Dennis, a plaintiff in the case.

Both the DEC and Cargill argued in petitions filed last week that the case should be dismissed because plaintiffs missed deadlines for serving papers to them.

In response, Richard Lippes, lawyer for the plaintiffs, acknowledged the late service and asked the judge to extend the deadline so that the case can be decided on its merits.

But consideration of plaintiffs’ main arguments are now on hold, pending further arguments on the motions to dismiss due to the missed service deadline.

The lawsuit alleges that Cargill has described and mapped the FPA differently over the years — most often as a fault, but most recently as an oval shape about one-fifth as long as the fault.

Map depicts 1000-foot setbacks from two versions of the FPA: the oval sketched in 2018 by Boyd (blue) and the fault line (yellow) repeatedly described earlier.According to the lawsuit, an estimated $34 million of mined salt is riding on which version of the FPA the DEC treats as official. The oval shape provides Cargill more leeway to mine salt, it argued. 

In 2007 the consultant RESPEC identified the FPA from a seismic study, describing it as “a deep penetrating, nearly vertical, east-west-trending fault.” Ten years later a group of Cargill mining consultants from different firms “confirmed that the PFA represents a fracture in the limestone.”

One Cargill map shows the FPA as a fault line roughly 7000 feet long.

But the February 2018 Boyd letter to the DEC included a map depicting the FPA as an oval. Boyd noted that it had sketched in the oval shape onto a 2010 map, but the letter provided no data or explanation to justify that action.

The lawsuit asserts that “DEC has accepted a generalized oval area utilized by Cargill in their mine map … to indicate the geographic area where the FPA exists.”

Suit went on to claim: “The DEC has failed to provide a reasoned basis for drawing a 1000-foot buffer around only the short oval version of the FPA.”

Last week WaterFront asked the DEC to provide the precise boundaries it recognizes for the FPA. It declined. On July 30, it replied:

“The boundaries of the Frontenac Point Anomaly are referenced in letters recently provided to you through FOIL and which are currently subject to litigation. DEC does not comment on pending litigation.”

In response to a recent Freedom of Information Law request, the DEC provided WaterFront four letters, including the February 2018 Boyd letter that, according to the agency, the new FPA provision “memorialized.” (The other three letters, each one page long, were from 2010 and 2018.)

Several of the mine safety reports cited in the February 2018 Boyd letter have never been made public, despite concerted efforts to obtain them. In 2018, a judge denied a motion by CLEAN to compel their release.

Meanwhile, John K. Warren, an salt mining geologist retained by CLEAN, wrote in a court affirmation in June that “the FPA needs protection and a protective barrier, but there is a larger issue of risks from water entry due to undocumented thinning bedrock and faulting that goes beyond the FPA.”

An expert in mine collapses, Warren is the author of an extensive 2017 article in ‘Earth-Science Reviews,’ entitled, “Salt usually seals, but sometimes leaks: Implications for mine and cavern stabilities in the short and long term.”

He summed up his most recent analysis of Cargill’s Cayuga salt mine, saying:

“I recommend that further mining beneath the trough of thin bedrock be discontinued until a full evaluation of the potential negative consequences.”