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Cargill begins flooding third largest salt mine: Regulators go silent on 2020 roof collapse

As court petitioners and geologic experts warn that Cargill’s salt mining under Cayuga Lake risks a catastrophic mine collapse and flood, the company began closing one of its two other giant U.S. salt mines 18 months after a roof collapse there killed two miners.

Cargill began flooding its Avery Island salt mine Monday, leaving it with two U.S. rock salt mines — one under Lake Erie, the other under Cayuga Lake. Ronald Olivier photo.

Cargill on Monday began intentionally flooding its Avery Island, La., facility as part of a months-long process of permanently shutting down the oldest salt mine in North America.

Neither the company nor federal mining regulators have provided a detailed accounting of the fatal December 2020 accident, which triggered wrongful death lawsuits against the company by the widows of the dead men.

Those suits, filed this past December, have been quietly settled under a confidentiality agreement, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs said Tuesday.

Meanwhile, federal mining regulators remain uncharacteristically silent on the causes and penalties — if any — it imposed for the accident.

Of the 28 mining fatality incidents reported by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration during the year 2020, all but the Avery Island roof collapse have “final reports” that provide details of the circumstances, causes and penalties assessed.

“These (MSHA) reports need to be released in a timely manner so that mine operators worldwide can better avoid fatal accidents going forward,” said John Dennis, a plaintiff in a pending lawsuit in Tompkins County that seeks to halt mining in potential hazardous sections of the Cayuga mine.

This 2022 map by Karen Edelstein depicts anomalies at Cargill’s Cayuga mine, as well as the company’s plans to mine in the future.

Cargill has a permit to mine salt beneath several thousand acres of Cayuga Lake, which is owned by the state. The Lansing mine, 2,300 feet below the surface, already extends for miles, covering some 4,000 acres.

As the excavation work moves northward, the strata separating the roof of the mine from the lake gradually thins, and portions of the ceiling include potentially unstable geologic “anomalies.”

“The trough of thin bedrock that’s been mapped from Anomaly A through Anomaly E, combined with the inevitable sagging or subsidence into the mine void beneath it, creates a recipe for eventual unwelcome changes,” John K. Warren, an international expert in salt mining practices, wrote in March in support of the plaintiffs’ case.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation, a co-defendant in the Cayuga lawsuit, has acknowledged the risks of flooding and collapse. In February 2021, the agency modified Cargill’s permit to prohibit mining within 1,000 feet of one such high-risk zone, known as the Frontenac Anomaly.

But the DEC has joined Cargill in arguing that the suit lacks merit.

In recent years, the company and the agency have a near-perfect record of dispensing with legal challenges over mine safety issues brought by the group CLEAN (Cayuga Lake Environmental Action Now) and others groups and individuals.

Warren, Buffalo geologist Raymond Vaughan and other geology experts have sounded warnings for years that conditions at the Cayuga mine make it a strong candidate to repeat to 1994 catastrophic collapse and flood of the Retsof mine in Livingston County, then the largest salt mine in North America.

In CLEAN’s pending challenge, state Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Aherne has scheduled a hearing in Ithaca for July 20.

Meanwhile, Cargill said it expects the process of closing the Avery Island mine by filling it with water to take about six weeks.

The company first announced plans to cease operations at Avery Island in January 2021, a few weeks after the fatal accident. In a press release at the time, Cargill said it had already considered closing for business reasons unrelated to the incident.

Cargill has operated the Louisiana mine since 1997. It has typically employed about 200 workers and produced about 1.5 million tons of rock salt a year.

Cargill’s two remaining salt mines are somewhat larger. The Cayuga mine employs about 230 and produces about 2 million tons annually, while Cargill’s Whiskey Island salt mine under Lake Erie near Cleveland employs about 250 miners and produces about 3.5 million tons of salt a year.

The Dec. 14, 2020 accident at Avery Island effectively put an end to Cargill’s 25-year run as the mine’s operator. The roof collapse briefly trapped 18 miners that day, but 16 eventually escaped unharmed. The other two men were crushed to death.

“We remain heartbroken by the tragic accident that resulted in the death of two employees at our Avery Island mining facility,” Cargill spokesman Daniel Sullivan said in a statement to WaterFront Tuesday. “Our condolences are with Lance Begnaud’s and Rene Romero Jr.’s families and friends. We know nothing will overcome the impact of their loss. However, we cannot comment on the litigation.”

Finger Lakes Partners (Billboard)

Hours after the fatal accident, the MSHA released a brief jargon-filled statement:

“Two miners died when a back failure occurred in a large intersection. The miners were drilling in an attempt to intercept water leaks when blocks of salt and anhydrite fell from beneath a slickenside onto the miners.”

The federal agency followed up with a preliminary report a week later before going silent for the next 18 months.

The lawsuit filed by Begnaud’s wife, Alexandra Kate Patin, offers more detail. It alleged that her husband and Romero had been “ordered to enter a known hazardous and barricaded area of the mine (due to past roof collapses) to address flowing water through the roof.” The flow was described as “torrential.”

According to the suit, the MSHA had cited the company earlier in the month for a “ground condition hazard, which read, in part:

“Until corrective work is completed, the area shall be posted with a warning against entry, and when left unattended, a barrier shall be installed to impede unauthorized entry.”

The lawsuit also described a sinkhole above the site of the roof collapse. It said contractors had been trucking in dirt to fill the hole, adding weight to the unstable cavern roof.

Patin and Begnaud had two children, and she was pregnant when he was killed. Romero and his widow, Genee Babineaux Romero, had one daughter.

Both Patin and Babineaux were represented by the law firm of Broussard & David in Lafayette, La. Blake R. David, a partner, confirmed that the cases had been settled, but he declined further comment, citing a confidentiality agreement. The two wrongful death suits were nearly identical.

The MSHA website said the incident was being investigated by Darren Conn, but he could not be reached at the phone number it provided for him.

Denisha Braxton, a spokeswoman for the MSHA at the Department of Labor, did not respond to several emails or a phone message.

The rock salt Cargill mined in Louisiana and continues to mine in New York and Ohio is used primarily to de-ice highways.

In several recent years, New York State has led all other states in tons of road salt applied and tons applied per lane/mile of state roads. While de-icing tends to make roads safer to drive, the activity is controversial because it comes with environmental costs.

In 2020, the New York State Legislature passed a bill to create a salt reduction task force. The initiative was spurred by data from the Adirondack Watershed Institute at Paul Smith’s College, which showed that water drawn from private wells down-gradient from salted state highways often had dangerous levels of sodium and chloride, the components of salt.

But salt spreading is big business for salt miners like Cargill and American Rock Salt in Livingston County.

According to Open Book New York, one Cargill road salt contract with New York State from Sept. 1, 2018 through Aug. 31, 2021 was for more than $232 million.

Cargill, a worldwide agribusiness behemoth, was founded in Iowa in the 1860s by William Wallace Cargill. It has grown into the nation’s largest private company, edging out Koch Industries.

It  reported sales of $134.4 billion in the most recent fiscal year, up from 114.6 billion a year earlier — a 17 percent leap made possible by soaring commodity prices.

The company’s annual net income soared to $4.93 billion from $3 billion in fiscal 2020 and well above its previous record of $3.95 billion in 2008, Bloomberg reported.

Members of the extended Cargill family collect a major portion of the earnings in dividends. At least five family members are billionaires. Bloomberg counts the Cargill clan as the world’s 11th wealthiest family with total net worth of about $51 billion.