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Cargill’s app to amend permit to mine under Cayuga Lake treated as a state secret 7 months after filed

In June, Cargill Inc. filed an application to modify its state permit to mine salt under Cayuga Lake, but even the nature of the company’s requested change remains a secret seven months later.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation confirmed that it is reviewing the application, but the DEC’s Albany press office declined to provide a copy. Since then the agency has refused to promptly respond to WaterFront’s Nov. 30 Freedom of Information Law request for the single document.

Cargill’s bid to alter regulations governing the mine comes in the final year of its five-year mining permit, which will expire on April 23.

Meanwhile, public anxiety has been rising about the risks the mine poses to Cayuga Lake following reports in over the summer that Cargill has been quietly trying to sell it.

In October, state and local lawmakers joined activists at a press conference to urge Gov. Hochul to block any stealth sale. 

Since then more than 2,700 people have signed a petition calling on the governor to order a full environmental review of the facility and to require the mine operator to post a $10 billion bond. They cite concerns that a roof collapse or mine flood could cause the lake’s salinity levels to spike.

Recently introduced State legislation sponsored by Assemblymember Anna Kelles (D-Ithaca) specifically addresses any potential sale of the mine and the permit modification such a sale would require.

But Cargill’s bid to alter the permit is not necessarily related to a potential sale.

Another possible purpose, based on data in the company’s most recent annual reports, is to address the need to modify the way it handles water that has been slowly but steadily seeping into the mine.

For many years, water has leaked in at rates of about 30-35 gallons a minute, mostly from its production shaft No. 1. That inflow has not been seen as an emergency. Dealing with it has been a routine and manageable maintenance activity.

The leaking water has been stored in pools on the mine’s Level 4. But available storage space on Level 4 has been running out. 

Several of the company’s annual reports have estimated the number of years left of available Level 4 storage, assuming steady rates of inflow. For example, the 2013 report says 13 years. That fell to 6.5 years in 2015 before rising to 7.1 years in 2016. 

The estimate in the annual 2017 report — apparently the last report to provide such an estimate — was 6.1 years.  

Given that reported rates of leakage have remained fairly steady at around 30-35 gallons per minute since 2017, storage space in Level 4 is apt to be quite limited if not exhausted today, six years later.

Therefore, Cargill’s application to modify its permit may relate to a proposed new solution for dealing with inflows of water into the mine. A Cargill spokesperson on Wednesday declined to confirm or deny that theory.

Salt mines routinely leak. Enormous underground pressures force groundwater to seep or flow into mines through fissures in surrounding rock.

While there is no public evidence that leakage into the Cayuga Lake mine has dramatically increased, leaks are a chronic threat at any salt mine, according to John K. Warren, an international expert in salt mine geology.

“At the moment, the level of water entry (into Cargill’s Cayuga mine) is safely controlled by the company via pumping, but most active salt mines are lost to flooding,” Warren wrote in a 2022 lawsuit affidavit.

Mining companies typically try to forestall the leakage problem by grouting with cement. In March 2018, Cargill consultant John T. Boyd Co. quoted Cargill as saying:

“Over the past year inflows in the #1 shaft have slowly increased back to about 23 (gallons per minute), this is despite grouting campaign that was completed in May, which achieved no measurable results.”

Chuck Miller, a Cargill spokesperson, confirmed Wednesday that the company had applied for a permit modification in June. But he declined to address water leakage issues. (Cargill has neither confirmed nor denied reports in The Deal in July and August that the company had hired Deutsche Bank to help it sell the Cayuga mine and exit the business of mining rock salt to deice roads).

Cargill operates another rock salt mine under Lake Erie near Cleveland.

Until 2020, Cargill mined rock salt at major three U.S. mines: Cayuga Lake; Whiskey Island in Cleveland and Avery Island in Louisiana.

The company has since shut down the Louisiana mine, and it is reportedly trying to sell the Cleveland mine.

In December 2020, a roof collapse at the Louisiana mine killed two miners. Weeks later Cargill said it planned to permanently close the mine.  According to federal regulators, the victims had been drilling holes in the cavern roof to inject grout in an effort to control gushing water when a mass of salt fell on them.

The fatal accident spurred wrongful death lawsuits, and the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration later cited Cargill for “aggravated conduct constituting more than ordinary negligence.”

The DEC has acknowledged potential instability of certain rock formations in the Cayuga mine. In February 2021, the agency initiated a modification to Cargill’s permit that barred mining near potentially dangerous geologic anomalies.

Although the agency sought to minimize its permit modification as mere “housekeeping changes,” DEC also ceded to the company its authority to hire or fire the consultant (John T. Boyd Co.) that specializes in mine stability and safety.

In seeking a copy of Cargill’s pending application for a permit modification, WaterFront filed a Freedom of Information request with the DEC on Nov. 30. Hours later, the agency said it expected to respond “no later than 12/29/2023.” 

But on that day, the DEC sent another letter that said it was still processing the FOIL request. “We estimate that DEC will complete its process by 1/26/2024,” it wrote.

Early in her tenure as governor, Hochul launched a program to improve “transparency and accountability” in her administrative agencies. She asked those agencies to report on their progress toward meeting those goals.

In response, the DEC filed a report that touted its effort. 

“We are committed to working for the people and strive every day to maintain their trust as we champion an open government and work to protect New York’s environment for future generations,” DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos wrote in his introduction the the agency’s October 2021 report to Hochul

The report said that in the year 2021 DEC had resolved FOIL requests in an average of 11 business days. Between 2016 and 2021, more than 80 percent of agency FOIL requests were resolved within 20 business days, it said. 

“While the majority of requests are processed within 20 business days, many responses take longer due to the complexity and scope of the records requested and the volume of potentially responsive records requiring review,” the agency reported to Hochul. “In such cases, the agency ensures timely updates to requesters to advise them of the status of the process.”

But WaterFront’s request for a single, readily-available document was irregularly delayed despite the fact that it was neither complex nor voluminous.