On 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.