Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Peter Bauer: No Balance In NYCO Mining Expansions

NYCO-Map-1On the heels of the passage of Proposal 5 last November to sell 200 acres of Forest Preserve to NYCO Minerals, Inc., state agencies and NYCO are now going for broke in new permit applications for a massive expansion of NYCO’s two mines in the Town of Lewis. At the December 2013 meeting of the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) there was unanimous cheering among the APA Board and senior leadership over passage of Proposal 5. In those same weeks, NYCO began its applications to expand its two mines in Lewis.

NYCO is seeking major expansions of both mines. With its political fortunes at an all-time high, the time is right to permanently change the scale of its mining activities in the Champlain Valley.

At its Lewis mine, which abuts the Jay Mountain Wilderness, NYCO is seeking expansion of its pit mining operation by 50%, start aggregate rock processing as well as ongoing wollastonite mining, expand its hours of operation to start earlier in the morning and end later in the day, and to expand trucking operations to 100 loads a day. At NYCO’s second mine at Oakhill, the company is looking to raise trucking to over 100 trips a day and expand its mining volumes of aggregate rock.

In 1997-98, I participated in an APA adjudicatory hearing over NYCO’s original permit for the siting of the new Oakhill mine. I did not know it at the time, but this would be one of the last APA adjudicatory hearings held. As the APA has become more business-friendly, one of its boldest actions has been to forgo the use of adjudicatory public hearings.

The NYCO Oakhill public hearing included many negotiations and agreements, which reduced the list of issues to adjudicate. The permit for the Oakhill mine was approved by the APA and this followed a contentious new permit for NYCO’s existing Lewis mine on Seventy Mountain. Activities at the Lewis Mine were always present in the negotiations around the new Oakhill permit, but NYCO was committed to winding down the Lewis mine and moving its operations to Oakhill. That was the sole point of the new mining application and permit.

At that point in the late 1990s, both mine permits for the first time contained a number of conditions to limit NYCO’s mining impacts on the quality of life of local residents. These things included:

• Limitations on how late or early truck traffic could begin at the NYCO mines.
• Starting times after the local school bus runs for public safety.
• A reduction of trucking by 50% in July and August.
• Various in-pit mining operation reforms for things like blinking lights rather than beepers when large machinery and motor vehicles operated in reverse to limit noise intrusions.
• Reductions in noise from the rock crusher.
• Publication of a blasting schedule with notifications to nearby residents.
• A citizens advisory group of local residents and NYCO.
• Water quality monitoring on impacted streams.
• Speedy investigations for reports of property damage from blasting activities.
• A formalized transition from the Lewis Mine to the Oakhill mine so that the time two mines operated simultaneously would be minimized.

NYCO wasn’t happy about these permit conditions, but their chief objective was to secure a new mining permit for a new mine, Oakhill, which guaranteed long-term wollastonite production capacity. One important feature of the Oakhill mine is that it placed much of NYCO’s trucking on the steep hills east of Route 9 on to a private road network that would significantly reduce negative impacts on residents.

NYCO runs trucks from its mines in Lewis to its processing plant in Willsboro. Trucks run back and forth along country roads through the pastoral Champlain Valley. For local residents each truck trip actually means two trucks pass their homes, which makes roaring NYCO trucks a major part of their lives day-in and day-out. Graymount leases the Oakhill mine and trucks materials to its processing plant on Route 9, north of Lewis.

The problem is that the balance achieved in the original NYCO Oakhill permit has been expertly whittled away over the past 15 years. The business-friendly APA has allowed NYCO to completely change its operations and steadily expand at both mines. The Lewis mine never closed, but grew bigger. Oakhill started operation and then was leased and transformed from a wollastonite mine to an aggregate rock mine. The local citizens group disheartened and disbanded.

Despite a dozen new permits for both mines over the last 15 years the APA has never evaluated the cumulative impacts of running two mines. 2013 saw both mines produce their greatest volumes and now NYCO is seeking another major expansion for each.

NYCO’s current application to the APA seeks to expand trucking to 100 loads every day for the Lewis Mine, which means 200 truck trips up and down Wells Hill. NYCO wants an 11-hour workday, which means 18 truck trips per hour, an average of one truck pass ever 3.33 minutes. That’s some rural life. At one time NYCO’s total truck traffic was capped for both mines at fewer than 100 per day.

The APA has done a poor job to date of evaluating the impacts of NYCO’s expansion plans. At a public meeting in Lewis in early July, APA staff admitted they had done no accident analysis for the increased truck trips. They had done no cumulative impact analysis for the impacts of significantly expanding operations of both mines. No analysis of impacts to local road systems had been undertaken. They had not even crunched the numbers for the total truck passes that local residents would endure. NYCO is seeking to expand the Lewis Mine by 50%, which does not include potential activities in Lot 8 when NYCO starts in on the Forest Preserve.

At the July public meeting local residents complained that NYCO was quick to repair cracked chimneys and other property damage caused by blasting before the November 2013 vote, but after passage reverted to old form of stiff-arming local residents and refusing to reconcile complaints.

NYCO is part of an international mining conglomeration that operates in dozens of countries and is poised to significantly expand here and abroad. The local business community is thrilled and cheering them on, paying no heed to quality of life impacts on local residents.

People have been in Lewis a long time. People had been living on Wells Hill long before NYCO started its small mining activities in the 1950s. Two things are clear right now. First, reaching a balance for NYCO’s mining activities and the quality of life for local residents has been a challenge for decades, but NYCO has clearly won out. Second, the APA has lost its regulatory backbone and allowed NYCO to expand activities to operate two mines simultaneously in ways that were never foreseen.

Once NYCO obtained its new permit for Oakhill, it changed course to operate both mines indefinitely. Over the next 15 years, NYCO steadily expanded operations at both mines. Now, NYCO wants to massively expand both mines.

Since the late 1990s, the APA has largely sat on its hands.

Chances are scant that the APA will approve an adjudicatory public hearing when it meets in mid-August. Things are out of balance now with NYCO’s two mines and chances are scant that the APA will muster the regulatory courage to reign in NYCO and restore this balance and defend the area’s rural quality of life.

 

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Peter Bauer is the Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks.

He has been working in various capacities on Adirondack Park environmental issues since the mid-1980s, including stints as the Executive Director of the Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks and FUND for Lake George as well as on the staff of the Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century. He also worked at Adirondack Life Magazine. He served as Chair of the Town of Lake George Zoning Board of Appeals and has served on numerous advisory boards for management of the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve.

Peter lives in Blue Mountain Lake with his wife and two children, enjoys a wide variety of outdoor recreational activities throughout the Adirondacks, and is a member of the Blue Mountain Lake volunteer fire department.

Follow Protect the Adirondacks on Facebook and Twitter.




8 Responses

  1. Jim says:

    What a travesty. Given the disbanding of the previous local group, one wonders if the voice of local residents is now being heard and whether their elected leaders give a hoot.

  2. Mark Gibson says:

    Well reported, and distressing. Those are huge trucks.

    How many truckloads currently – i.e. what is the increment, Peter? I ask because expanding the Lewis mine may mean an intention to increase the rate of wollastonite taken out, or may mean there is a need to enlarge the mine in order to maintain the current “take”. And I take it the trucking pertains only to getting wollastonite to Willsboro, that the aggregate goes elsewhere.

    I take it the Oak Hill site had insufficient wollastonite so that is why it converted to aggregate? Where it the aggregate taken?… I assume trucked to a more local crushing and sorting site and then on to road-building sites, etc. and not to the Willsboro refining site.

    Aggregate must be used all over the Park for roads, and other infrastructure. I expect there are other aggregate quarries in the Park and that the Park communities are “self sufficient as far as aggregate but had never thought about it. I wonder if the NYCO aggregate is used mostly within the Park or is commercially successful beyond its borders. (Probably Plattsburgh).

    I wonder too… is this currently the only active strip mining in the Park?

    Incidentally, my winter digs are Salt Lake – we look across the Salt Lake Valley to the largest open pit mine in the world – Rio Tinto’s/Kennecott’s excavation, devouring really, of the lovely Oquirrh mountains for copper ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bingham_Canyon_Mine ). Let’s be glad, at least, that this is about gravel and wollastonite – not copper!

  3. Eric says:

    Thanks Peter for the reporting and the history. It is clear that our government agencies and elected officials are not regulating environmental impact, or advocating for rural and wild over business at any cost.

    Given this obvious shirking of responsibility, it is all the more frightening to me that The Adirondack Council and The Adirondack Mountain Club supported Proposal 5. If environmental advocates don’t advocate, how can we expect our government to be able to balance the power of money?

    As for my small yearly environmental donations, The Council and AMC are off the list. Personally my support now goes to Protect The Adirondacks. Conservation needs a loud, clear and strong voice.

  4. Paul says:

    Peter, what is the particular “balance” that you would suggest. Is it the current level of mining activity?

    That just seems like it will draw out the amount of time they are mining there. Why not speed it up and get out faster? Things will be very quiet when they are gone.

  5. RBH says:

    As someone who has spent time in this area since the early 1970s, I don’t see the problem with expanding the mine. It is one of the few profitable businesses which sustains the local economy.
    The problem with the APA and people of Mr. Bauer’s ilk is that they want the locals to bear the cost of fulfilling their recreational and aesthetic desires.
    The “roaring” trucks may be a nuisance to some, but its the sound of food on the table, a roof over the head, etc. to others.
    Mineral extraction is a one-shot deal. One day they will be gone. The forest, streams and beauty will remain.

    • Mark Gibson says:

      Been a “visitor” since 1950. Yours is a point of view that deserves respect. I have many friends that are “locals” whose values, tenacity, and connection with this magnificent environment are enviable. These folks love this place differently from many of the areas visitors, yet they do love it, and need to set a table, come dinnertime.

  6. Curt Austin says:

    I never know what to make of this sort of argument. An advocacy group with motivation A adopts the position of a group with motivation B. Sometimes, the second group is hypothesized, small, or not organized.

    I can be moderately sympathetic to both groups in such cases, but uncertain about linking the two motivations together. Here, one suspects that Protect’s position is quite simple: mines do not belong in their vision of the Adirondack Park; they’re working to be rid of them. Doing calculations about truck loads on behalf of a small number of local residents seems rather far removed from that grand motivation. After all, traffic issues of this sort arise in all zoning districts.

    To the extent that NYCO has acted in bad faith, some appropriate action seems warranted. On the other hand, this sort of thing happens in all forms of advocacy. The welfare of a business cannot be separated from the welfare of their employees and the local community; this is a source of unavoidable awkwardness, as we have here on the issue of traffic dust and noise. Let the resolution of that issue be local; deal with the larger issue with larger arguments.

    • Peter Bauer says:

      Curt,

      You got it wrong a number of levels.

      We worked all through the 1997-1998 adjudicatory hearing and permit on conditions for the Oakhill mine — not to stop it. The deal was to move NYCO’s mine from the Lewis mine to Oakhill. A lot of time and money was invested in that process.

      The whole point of the Oakhill mine was for NYCO to have a long-term source of wollastonite in a place where many of the issues that negatively impact local residents and the Park were mitigated. At Oakhill many of truck problems were lessened, it was further from residences so blasting and in-pit operations were less of a presence in the lives of residents, and mining was moved off the edge of the Forest Preserve.

      In no way, shape or form was NYCO ever to operate two mines simultaneously. That was not part of the deal because it undermined everything about the need for a new permit for Oakhill.

      This isn’t about mining in the Adirondack Park, it’s about mining responsibly.