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Home » Schuyler County » Watkins Glen » DEC’s Feb. 28 cutoff for comments on gravel mine seen as part of 16-year pattern of obstruction

DEC’s Feb. 28 cutoff for comments on gravel mine seen as part of 16-year pattern of obstruction

  • / Updated:
  • Peter Mantius 

(UPDATED at 12:45 p.m. Feb. 19 with letter from Schuyler County’s state Legislators demanding a 90-day extension of the DEC’s Feb. 28 deadline for public comment on the proposed Padua Ridge gravel mine expansion.)

The state’s tight deadline for public comment on a plan to quintuple the size of the Padua Ridge gravel mine on a hill above the village of Watkins Glen short-circuits public efforts at routine due diligence, state and local officials say.

Sarah Agan of Montour Falls said the DEC should stick to its mission and protect the Watkins Glen State Park and its surroundings

Furthermore, the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s refusal to budge from its Feb. 28 cutoff for comments fits a 16-year pattern of restricting public participation in stark violation of the agency’s mission statement, local residents add. 

That mission calls for the DEC to promote “the empowerment of individuals to participate in environmental decisions that affect their lives.”

Instead, the DEC has taken a firm stand on the Feb. 28 deadline in the face of widespread calls for an extension, doubling down on its years-long practice of restricting public participation.

For example, the Schuyler County Legislature voted 5-0 this month on a resolution requesting an extension. The mayor of Watkins Glen, the regional parks director and others have also pleaded in vain for more time.

The gravel mine abuts the Watkins Glen State Park, one of the state’s leading tourist attractions. It drew roughly 1.3 million visitors last year. 

Fred Bonn, Finger Lakes regional director of the state Department of Parks and Recreation, said the DEC’s tight deadline cuts off his chance to comment on a report it has requested from the U.S. Geological Survey.

The report USGS is preparing would inform Bonn on “potential adverse impacts from the proposed expanded areas of mining to the hydrology, natural resources and biodiversity of the gorge,” he wrote in Feb. 12 letter to the DEC.

The Feb. 28 deadline also allows the DEC to sidestep any potential public comments on a pending Freedom of Information Law request for documents detailing disciplinary actions the agency has taken against the project’s developer, Martin Wojcik. The DEC told WaterFront to expect its FOIL response by March 14.

Wojcik has been pursuing various plans to dramatically expand the sand and gravel mine since 2007.

That year the DEC put its mission statement goals on hold when it ruled that an expansion of the mine posed no environmental threat. The ruling allowed it to waive the normal environmental impact statement (EIS) process, which requires robust public participation.

“I have no comprehension why the DEC said there was no significant impact,” state Sen. Tom O’Mara told WaterFront Saturday. “They kinda like rubber-stamped it out of the gate, which was eye-opening to me.” 

Residents who live just below the mine erupted in outrage over the ruling. Their protests prompted the agency to reverse its stance and require an EIS.

Then in 2008 the agency issued a scoping outline that restricted the EIS by excluding from consideration the issues of traffic, noise, dust and vibration. 

The importance of those omissions didn’t become obvious until this month because local public officials and residents who live near the mine had assumed Wojcik’s mine expansion plans had died 2008. 

Local officials were shocked to learn in January that from 2008 to early 2024, DEC had been quietly entertaining various new versions of the plan without notifying them.

On Jan. 11, the DEC announced in its Environmental notice bulletin that it had accepted a 784-page draft EIS prepared by a consultant for Wojcik. It set February dates for public hearings and the deadline for public comment. If it grants Wojcik’s permit request, the mine would grow from 14.33 acres to 75.28 acres.

The Padua gravel mine sits just north of the Watkins Glen State Park gorge and west of the village of Watkins Glen. The owner of the “hole in the earth,” as some local residents call it, seeks to expand it from 14.33 to 75.28 acres.

The agency scheduled two hearings — one a virtual event and the other an in-person event at 2 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 13. 

When Watkins Glen Mayor Laurie DeNardo told the DEC’s Frances Knickmeyer that holding the in-person hearing in the middle of a workday was “unacceptable,” Knickmeyer curtly responded: 

“We are not changing the time of the in-person meeting.”

Only after O’Mara and others appealed did the agency relent by agreeing to hold a second hearing at 6 p.m. on same day as the mid-afternoon meeting.

Of the nearly 30 people who spoke at the in-person hearings, only one voiced even tepid support for the project. Everyone else was strongly opposed.

Wojcik sat in silence through most of the evening event. At one point he was directly confronted by Philly DeSarno, a former head of economic development for the City of Ithaca who now lives near the gravel mine. 

DeSarno locked her gaze on Wojcik and said: “Please, please, Marty, don’t do this. I beg of you.”

Sarah Agan of Montour Falls read from the hearing podium the DEC’s mission statement, and emphasized the agency’s stated goal of empowering individuals to participate in environmental decisions that affect their lives.

“I cannot think of a more profound example the need to put DEC’s mission to work than protecting the exceptional and rare natural resource that is the Watkins Glen State Park and immediate surroundings,” Agan said.

Casey Weakland of Schuyler County said she was concerned that “noise, dust, vibration and increased truck traffic pose a direct threat to the tranquility and integrity of our historic Watkins Glen State Park.”

But Wojcik’s consultant, JMT of New York Inc., noted in a 2021 letter that “dust, vibration and truck traffic impacts are outside the scope” of the dEIS, which is only required to cover the limited agenda set out in the 2008 scoping document.

In fact, that scoping document pertained to a discarded Wojcik expansion application that had sought to increase the mine’s permitted area to 106.7 acres. It had also included plans for a rail spur to allow trains to haul away sand and gravel.

The current plan seeks to expand to 75.28 acres, but it does not include a rail spur. That means trucks would need to carry every load out of the mine.

Even so, the current dEIS summarily states that “truck traffic to and from the site will not be increased.” The 784-page document does not provide any analysis to support that claim.

Aside from truck traffic, O’Mara said that flooding of village could be made worse by expanding the mine, and he expressed concerns that a bigger mine could spoil views from the Seneca Lake Scenic Byway along Route 414.

On Monday, Feb. 19, O’Mara and State Assembly Member Phil Palmesano sent a letter the DEC demanding a 90-extension of the DEC’s Feb. 28 deadline. “We wholeheartedly agree (with the Schuyler Legislature) and we cannot state it strongly enough: The public comment period must be extended by at least 90 days,” the legislators wrote to DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos. 

O’Mara, a Republican from Big Flats, represents Schuyler County in the state Senate, while Palmesano, a Republican from Corning, represents the county in the state Assembly.

Neither O’Mara nor Palmesano participated in any of the DEC’s public hearings, and they did not send aides to represent them, leaving their opinions on the proposed mine expansion a mystery. WaterFront sought interviews with both early Thursday. O’Mara agreed to speak Saturday. Palmesano never responded to phone and emails requests.

Peter Widynski of Watkins Glen said that when he confronted Martin Wojcik about apparent mining activity on his property north of Route 409 (above) that is not covered by a mining permit, Wojcik said he was only “grading.” Google Earth photo

O’Mara, who is a partner in the law firm Barclay Damon, said he had no knowledge about any role that another Barclay Damon partner, Kevin Roe, may have had in Wojcik’s Padua Ridge expansion negotiations with the DEC. 

Roe, Wojcik and several state officials received courtesy copies of key documents between 2019 and 2021.

“I have not inquired on that and am certainly not engaged or involved in that,” O’Mara said.

O’Mara also noted that several speakers at the public hearings had raised questions about Wojcik’s compliance with his state permit to mine.

Peter Widynski, who lives near the mine on the north side of Route 409, brought up the issue Tuesday evening. He noted that while Wojcik’s existing mine and the proposed expansion area lie entirely to the south of Route 409, mining equipment has also been operating north of Route 409, apparently without a permit.

“I was just speaking to Marty,” Widynski told the hearing audience. “I asked him, ‘What’s going to happen to the north of Route 409?’  And he says there’s nothing going on there … 

“Marty told me that he’s just grading in that area. Well, how come you need mining equipment to grade?”

Wojcik did not respond to Widynski’s public comments, and he declined WaterFront’s request to be interviewed.