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Hochul urged to protect Cayuga Lake by requiring $10 billion bond and safety exam before Cargill can sell mine

  • / Updated:
  • Peter Mantius 

State and local lawmakers joined clean water advocates today in a virtual press conference to urge Gov. Kathy Hochul to protect Cayuga Lake by blocking any sudden “secret” sale of Cargill Inc.’s giant salt mine in Lansing.

Chuck Tauck, owner of Sheldrake Point Winery, said he favors a full environmental review of the mine as well as a substantial bond in case of a mine catastrophe.

“Cargill can’t skip town and leave Finger Lakes communities holding the bag,” said Assemblymember Anna Kelles (D-Ithaca). “…Billions of dollars need to be set aside by whatever company owns it. Right now it’s Cargill.”

Cargill officials have neither confirmed nor denied a media report this summer that said the company had hired Deutsche Bank to help it find a buyer.

But that news prompted concern that the mine, which extends for many hundreds of acres beneath the state-owned lake, might be sold to a buyer that fails guard against risks of a catastrophic mine failure.

For decades, Cargill has operated a salt mine that covers many hundreds of acres beneath Cayuga Lake.

In recent days more than 1,500 people have signed a petition calling for the governor to require a “full and independent environmental review” of safety issues at the mine as well as a $10 billion environmental bond.

“An independent review will shed critical light on the on-going risks of mine collapse, lake salinization and other damage to surrounding land,” said the petition drafted by Stephanie Redmond of the group CLEAN (Cayuga Lake Environmental Action Now).

State Sen. Lea Webb (D-Binghamton) concurred in a statement — read at the press conference — that calls for Hochul to “stop the sale of the mine and require a full independent environmental review before it can be sold. Any potential sale of the mine must be done transparently and with public oversight.” 

Cargill, the nation’s largest private company with annual sales of $177 billion, has operated the mine for decades with lax regulatory oversight from the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

As its mining activities have gradually moved to the north, the bedrock separating the mine from the lake gradually thins, raising risks of flooding or a roof collapse. Scientists — both independent and Cargill-paid — have noted geologic “anomalies” that potentially increase those risks. 

Cargill consultants have identified geologic anomalies where mining risks rise.

The DEC has never required the company to prepare a full environmental impact statement for the mine, despite dire warnings from independent salt mine experts and a drumbeat of requests from the public. While the costs associated with a mine collapse or flood could run into the billions of dollars, the agency has required a bond of only $3.5 million. 

Failure to protect the tens of thousands of people who rely on Cayuga Lake for their drinking water is “frankly inexcusable,” said Chuck Tauck, owner of Sheldrake Point Winery, which is located on the lake’s western side several miles north of the mine.

“We share the concerns expressed in the petition to Gov. Hochul that the state be proactive in ensuring that the current salt mine operations are subject to rigorous environmental review,” Tauck said. “Any change of ownership … or closure of the mine (must) be subject to public scrutiny and a proposed environmental bond to protect the lake and the public from future negligence or a future disaster.”

Chuck Miller, a Cargill spokesman, declined to comment today on the petition’s demand for a $10 billion bond and an independent environmental review.

“Cargill can’t comment on rumor and speculation regarding the Cayuga salt mine,” Miller said in an email to WaterFront. “As we prepare for the winter season, we remain committed to our purpose of helping save lives and enhancing commerce by keeping roads clear of ice and snow with our salt.”

Last year Cargill pushed for a state law designed to protect its New York State market from cheaper foreign competition. But Hochul, facing pushback from state highway and sanitation officials that warned the measure would drive up their costs by millions of dollars, approved amendments that virtually gutted the protectionist legislation.

Late today, John V. Dennis, president of CLEAN, sent a letter to Hochul that urged her to block any Cargill sale of its Cayuga mine and to implement a moratorium on all salt mining there by the end of the year.

The letter also urged the governor to require Cargill to post a $10 billion bond, to “conduct an environmental impact statement,” to develop a “careful mine closure plan,” and to identify “any reasonable alternative uses (for the mine) such as storage of sequestered carbon.”