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KEEPING SECRETS: DEC stalls FOIL requests for gravel mine docs hidden from Watkins Glen, other officials

When a state agency is determined to keep secrets, it takes more than a village to pry them loose. Even the state Freedom of Information Law may not be enough.

Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association warns that the current drainage plan for the Padua Ridge gravel mine is inadequate because it is only designed to protect against a 10-year storm event. Because Watkins Glen can expect more floods like this one in 2021, protection against at least a 50-year storm event is needed, SLPWA says.

That’s the lesson the state Department of Environmental Conservation is impressing on the residents and public officials in Watkins Glen in a fight over a gravel pit.

The DEC continues to withhold from the public 16 years of its written communications with Martin Wojcik over his evolving plans to expand the Padua Ridge sand and gravel mine. The 14.33-acre mine is set on a steep hill above the village, and it abuts the Watkins Glen State Park, its crown jewel tourist attraction that attracts 1.2 million visitors a year.

Wojcik’s initial plan died in 2008 in the face of intense public opposition. 

But mine expansion talks heated up again — internally — in 2017. DEC managed to keep Watkins Glen and Schuyler County officials in the dark for years before springing a surprise announcement on them in January.

That’s when the law required the agency to reveal that it was considering a formal application from Wojcik for a permit to quintuple the size of the mine to more than 75 acres. The DEC unveiled his 784-page draft environmental impact statement and set a Feb. 28 deadline for public comment.

The Schuyler County Legislature promptly stated its objection to the secret process and its opposition to the application, as did Watkins Glen Mayor Laurie DeNardo.  

State Sen. Tom O’Mara (R-Big Flats) and Assembly Member Phil Palmesano (R-Corning) weighed in with a Feb. 19 letter to DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos that said “the process by which this expansion application has been brought forth … raises troubling questions.” The legislators asked Seggos to provide 16 years of records and correspondence between DEC and Wojcik “as soon as possible.”

The next day, WaterFront requested the same documents from the DEC in one of three Padua-related Freedom of Information Law requests filed that week. 

Rather than promptly delivering the documents, the agency stated last week that it would need more time to comply.

For example, DEC said five weeks was insufficient time to answer a FOIL request for copies of all agency disciplinary actions against Wojcik.

When WaterFront emailed questions about transparency to the DEC Tuesday morning, agency officials acknowledged them but did not answer them. (Seven hours after this article was published, the DEC responded with a statement that said it was continuing to process WaterFront’s FOIL requests).

DEC declined to provide assurance that DEC would deliver FOIL-requested documents by 5 p.m. April 13, the revised deadline for public comments on the Padua expansion application. (O’Mara and Palmesano, who represent Schuyler County in the state Legislature, had called for at least a 90-day extension. The DEC allowed only 45 more days.)

O’Mara did not respond to phone, text and email messages asking whether the DEC had provided the documents he requested in his letter to Seggos.

In the surprise January announcement in its Environmental Notice Bulletin, the DEC gave a condensed history of Wojcik’s 16-year bid to expand his mine under his company named It’s Greener Now LLC (IGN).

On his first try in 2007, DEC ruled that he would not have to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) because it found the project posed no serious threats. That decision triggered a storm of protest in Watkins Glen, and the agency reversed itself in 2008. It would require an EIS after all. 

At a public hearing in February, Sarah Agan of Montour Falls urged DEC officials to follow their mission statement and protect the Watkins Glen State Park and its surroundings.

But then, in a narrowly written scoping document, DEC restricted the issues to be considered in the EIS. It declared that truck traffic, dust, noise and vibration were not relevant issues that needed to be analyzed.

In any case, local opponents began to relax in late 2008 because the project appeared to be dead. In fact, it was only dormant.

By 2017, a consultant for Wojcik began asking questions about the potential impact an expansion might have on historical and cultural resources. Noise levels were measured at the state park’s Indian Trail Overlook.

In May 2019, Wojcik delivered a draft EIS to the DEC for a plan to expand from 14.33 acres to 106.7 acres, but the DEC declined to accept it. The plan had included a material transport tunnel under NYS Route 409 and a new rail siding to allow trains to haul away sand and gravel. 

Wojcik revised the DEIS in August 2022 and then changed the site plan again in February 2023. When DEC finally accepted the most recent DEIS, it was required to announce it and hold public hearings.

For years, DEC officials had their kept lips sealed around officials in Watkins Glen and Schuyler County, even as other state agencies like the Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation had to be let in on the secret plans to expand the mine.

“Our office is particularly concerned with … the specific impacts to the (Watkins Glen State Park) that might arise from the mine expansion,” NYSOPRHP stated in 2019. “We found no assessment of anticipated increases in noise, dust, vibration, truck traffic or other direct and indirect impacts that the expansion of this extractive industrial (cq) would have on the historic park.”

All those worries were said to be satisfied — without explanation — a few months later.

A truck with the logo for It’s Greener Now LLC is righted after flipping on Route 409’s dangerous curve only yards from Watkins Glen’s busiest intersection in 2021.

The ENB announcement in January also dismissed the traffic issue, declaring that the proposed extraction of 3.5 million cubic yards of material over 20 years would not require any additional trucking — even if the rail siding plan had been scratched. But that rate of extraction would require dozens of trucks per day, nearly all of which would have to negotiate a dangerous curve only yards away from the village’s busiest intersection.

When Schuyler County residents finally had the chance to comment on the proposed mine expansion at DEC public hearings in February, virtually everyone opposed it.

Sarah Agan of Montour Falls pleaded with the DEC officials to follow their mission statement and protect the park and its surroundings.

Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association sent DEC written concerns that the latest DEIS fails to adequately address potential flooding and the remediation of areas where mining is finished. 

An appendix to the DEIS “appears to indicate that the drainage design accommodates a 10-year storm event,” SLPWA wrote. “Pure Waters requests that the stormwater pond system be constructed to retain a 50-year storm event.”

Bill Roege, SLPLA ’s president, said in an interview that the mine’s location above the village and Seneca Lake means that drainage safeguards are vital.

“Climate change is coming,” he said. “We are getting more of these storms. Certainly (10-year storm events) are going to happen multiple times over the period of this project and there are going to be bigger storms than that.”

He said that although Seneca Lake has experienced two 100-year storms in the past 100 years, SLPWA “would certainly be happy with a 50-year” design standard at the mine.

In its letter the DEC, the group also said the agency should require more stringent rules for reclaiming mined-out areas with proper grading and vegetation. “Any site plan expansion should limit the amount of disturbed area to that which is in effect today as an enforceable condition.”

Or, as Roege said, “It’s important to do remediation as you go … Our approach is to push DEC to do the right thing and be more responsive to the public.”

Other speakers at the DEC-sponsored public hearings last month questioned whether Wojcik had been disciplined for permit violations in the past. Peter Widynski of Watkins Glen said satellite images appeared to show mining activity on property not covered by Wojcik’s current mining permit.

WaterFront filed a FOIL request for DEC enforcement actions against Wojcik on Feb. 14. The agency initially responded in a letter that said: “You may expect the Department’s response to your request no later than 3/14/2024.”

But when that day arrived, the agency said, “We estimate DEC will complete its process by 3/28/2024.”

DEC sent similar letters for both of WaterFront’s other FOIL requests related to the Padua Ridge mine. But those delays extended into April.