Cargill clean-up

Cargill's soil removal effort to address a spill that took place in February. (Photo provided)

A broken pipe carrying sodium ferrocyanide at the Cargill Salt Mine in Lansing discharged a green liquid into Cayuga Lake last February, according to a notice of violation the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) issued to Cargill on Feb. 12 as revealed for the first time earlier this month through documents released by a local activist last week.

 “We immediately repaired and tested the pipe before returning it to service later in the day, “ said Justin Barber, a representative from Cargill’s corporate affairs office.

A food additive, sodium ferrocyanide, or YPS, is used to keep salt from caking.

Discovered during a routine inspection, the leaking pipe was between the Norfolk-Southern railroad tracks and a spur used by Cargill to load salt into rail cars, adjacent to Cayuga Lake.

DEC required the mine to collect soil samples near the discharge pipe, test them for chlorides, cyanide and total dissolved solids, and provide the results to the DEC. Cargill hired JMT of New York to guide and report on Cargill’s response. According to the DEC, 

Cargill’s plan was to continue removing and testing soil until either the test results were clean or soil removal became too risky. The company removed 400 tons of soil but excavation efforts came to a halt when the railroad tracks interfered with plans.

“The bottom line is that [Cargill] identified contamination that exceeded the clean up requirement and they left it in place. This now constitutes a continuing threat to Cayuga Lake,” said Walter Hang, an environmental activist and president of the Ithaca-based firm Toxics Targeting.

Of 10 soil cyanide samples collected, four exceeded the New York Commercial Land Use Criteria and the 40 parts per million (ppm) protection of groundwater standard, according to JMT’s report, Cargill SPDES NOV Response Activities Report dated April 2019.  (Because there is no soil clean up standard for YPS, the groundwater standard is used, according to JMT’s report.).

The four results showed total cyanide at 73, 48, 89 and 91 ppm, surpassing the limit of 40 ppm.

In Hang’s view, the public should have been alerted to the unpermitted discharge.

“In unpublished work, we’ve found that it (YPS) biodegrades fairly readily so I’m not overly concerned by it personally from a human health perspective,” said Anthony Hay, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology at Cornell.

However, he cautioned, “The ecological impacts at these sites are still unclear.” 

The DEC also required Cargill to install a groundwater collection system in the soil excavation area to ensure that contaminated groundwater was not discharged into Cayuga Lake. The system was operated until sampling showed groundwater standards were met

This year’s unpermitted industrial discharge was not the first time Cargill allegedly broke environmental conservation law, according to documents obtained by Hang through the Freedom of Information Act and released at a press conference on Sept. 19.

Since 1979, the DEC and Cargill have entered into two consent orders – a legal agreement or settlement resolving a dispute between parties without admission of guilt or liability.

In 1984, the DEC alleged that Cargill discharged total dissolved solids, chlorides and cyanide into Cayuga Lake at levels exceeding the mining company’s State Pollution Discharge Elimination System Permit. A 1979 consent order alleged violations based on salt found to be leaking into the lake from the Bessemer Quarry, north of Cargill’s property.

Incident reports, also released by Hang, revealed other unpermitted discharges, including trichloroethylene last March. Hang called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to fully investigate and remediate the Cargill mine site and “end this regulatory fiasco once and for all.” 

For safety reasons, Hang supports the transition of the salt mine currently operating more than 2,000 feet beneath Cayuga Lake to under dry land. He identified Tompkins County records showing that private property owners in Lansing are leasing rights to Cargill. For example, earlier this year, the Bensvue Farm on Lansingville Road entered into a lease arrangement with Cargill.

Cargill’s spokesperson said the company is purchasing rights from private property owners.

“To continue to mine salt that keeps New York roads safe during the winter, we regularly secure mineral rights under land and water,” Barber said.

In 2006, the Bensvue Farm received more than $1 million from New York State as payment for purchased development rights to keep the property in agriculture and prevent the area from turning into urban sprawl

“As long as there is no surface access or disruption to the water,” underground salt mining is consistent with the agricultural easement, said Scott Doyle, Associate Planner with the Tompkins County Department of Planning and Sustainability.

Cargill is installing a new airshaft at its Lansing plant for the health and safety of its employees and to comply with federal and state laws.  Once installed, the new shaft will enable the mineworkers to more quickly get from underground operations to clean air. 

Construction of the new airshaft will take up to two years. In the meantime, the Cargill mine continues to operate under Cayuga Lake a mile past Taughannock Point.

“For the foreseeable future we plan to continue mining under Lake Cayuga [sic],” Barber wrote in an email.

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