Legislation is pending in the State Legislature for “second passage” of a Constitutional Amendment to transfer 200 acres of Forest Preserve lands in the Jay Mountain Wilderness to NYCO Minerals, Inc. This legislation has strong support from North Country elected state representatives. The Governor supports it and the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is taking an active role stalking for the bill.
There are two big problems with this effort. First, this land swap sets a terrible precedent for the “Forever Wild” Forest Preserve. Second, the bill is riddled with inaccuracies, outright falsehoods, and misstatements.
In New York, a Constitutional Amendment requires passage in two successive Legislatures and then approval by a majority of voters in a statewide ballot. “First passage” for the NYCO amendment was achieved in 2012. A new Legislature in 2013-14 provides the opportunity for “second passage.”
Here are the facts. NYCO Minerals, Inc., started mining in the Champlain Valley in the 1950s. In the early 1970s it opened a mine on Seventy Mountain in the Town of Lewis. NYCO called this “the Lewis mine” and it received one of the first permits from the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) for a 30-acre open mining pit on a 260-acre tract. This permit reported that a series of test bores throughout the tract had found wollastonite of a high grade. For 40 years, NYCO has mined the Lewis mine and through a series of new permits from the APA, it expanded the mine pit to over 80 acres. The west wall of the mine pit borders the Forest Preserve lands of the Jay Mountain Wilderness.
NYCO built and operates a processing plant in the neighboring Town of Willsboro. NYCO trucks tons of wollastonite embedded in rock to this plant where it is separated and processed. Wollastonite is used in various products. NYCO employs around 100 people; many have worked there for a long time.
NYCO started expanding the Lewis mine in the mid-1990s. That meant that it blasted more often and trucked more rock and ore to Willsboro. To get to the Lewis mine, big NYCO trucks operate on narrow, steep and twisting town and county roads. Expansion allowed over 60 truck trips daily, that’s over 120 truck trips up and down these hillside roads. For neighbors, the loud, screeching trucks and the blasting from the mine pit is a constant nuisance; sometimes windows shatter, there are close calls on the roads. The Residents for Responsible Mining formed in the late 1990s and at its peak had over 100 families that tried to intervene in the permit process to protect their homes and quality of life.
NYCO believes that it’s coming to the end of the Lewis mine and wants access to the Forest Preserve along the mine pit’s west wall to extend mining another 6-10 years. NYCO’s surrogates have said this is a do-or-die situation for the mining company.
Yet, NYCO is not banking solely on this amendment. It has invested millions of dollars in its processing plant in Willsboro. It controls a healthy share of the world’s wollastonite market. By all accounts the company has done well in the Champlain Valley.
In 1997-1998, NYCO went through a full-blown APA adjudicatory public hearing for a brand new mine, the Oakhill mine, two miles from the Lewis mine. At Oakhill, NYCO owns 455 acres and was permitted to begin with a 30-acre mining pit, which subsequent permits saw expanded to 50 acres. NYCO built its own private access road to Oak Hill that enters directly onto Route 9. There are many fewer nuisance issues with neighboring residents at Oakhill than at the Lewis mine.
At the time it secured the initial Oakhill permit, NYCO said it only had 3-5 years left at the Lewis mine. It pressured the APA to give it everything it wanted, with minor concessions to area residents. NYCO stated emphatically that it would not operate two mines more than a few years as it opened the Oakhill mine and phased out, closed, and then reclaimed the Lewis mine.
In 2002, NYCO received a new permit for the Oakhill mine from the APA which stated that it had signed a 10-year contract with Graymount, a major supplier of crushed stone for highway construction and other purposes. NYCO didn’t just take a page from Tom Sawyer, it took the whole book; NYCO got paid by Graymount to rip apart Oakhill and remove the overburden to expose the wollastonite deposits. Graymount has a processing plant a short distance away on Route 9. This deal remains in place today and apparently has worked well for both companies. The APA has given NYCO a series of new permits authorizing greater volumes of the “aggregate” overburden to be mined and removed by Graymount on Oakhill. Now, more than 180,000 tons annually are removed from Oakhill.
NYCO also continued to operate the Lewis mine well beyond the 3-5 years it claimed it had remaining when it pressured the APA to secure the new Oakhill permit. The Lewis mine reserves may now, 15 years after the original Oakhill permit was awarded, be running out.
In 2006, NYCO submitted a “25-Year Plan” to the APA. NYCO stated that it would wind down the Lewis mine by 2015 and have the Oakhill mine up to maximum capacity the following year in 2016. Moreover, the report stated that the wollastonite NYCO would extract from Oakhill was higher quality, making its mining activities more efficient.
Simply put, NYCO has been planning for how to sustain its operations for a long time. NYCO has been working for a long time to make sure it has all the wollastonite it needs and that there will be no interruption in supplying its customers.
Lets look the two big problems with the proposed NYCO Constitutional Amendment. Lets start with the bad precedent.
1. The proposal is totally contrary to “Forever Wild,” the only Article of the Constitution adopted unanimously by the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1894, the first 54 words of which remain unchanged to this day.
2. The proposal is totally contrary to the consistent theme of the few amendments enacted since 1894: each was limited in scope; each was in furtherance of a public, not a private purpose; and, each resulted in a net benefit to the Forest Preserve.
Past amendments include the expansion of a town cemetery in Keene, expansion of a public airport in Arietta (which was done twice), needed improvements for a public water supply for the Raquette Lake community in the Town of Long Lake, minimization of public utility routes and impacts from the Stark Falls dam to the Village to Tupper Lake. The only other Constitutional Amendment that involved a private benefit was the Perkins Clearing land swap between the DEC and International Paper Company, where a checkerboard series of intertwined holdings were swapped so that each side had a large contiguous block to manage.
The proposed NYCO proposal breaks with historic precedent because it would be the first Forest Preserve Constitutional Amendment to be undertaken for private commercial gain rather than for a public municipal purpose.
Lets turn now to the many misstatements and inaccuracies in the legislation that supporters wrote to support their case.
The bill language and bill Justification include numerous misstatements, while omitting critical information. The Bill Justification simply does not accurately portray the situation.
The Bill Justification states:
“The Lewis mine produces 60,000 tons of wollastonite annually – a little more than 8% of the annual worldwide production. However, NYCO’s mine is approaching the end of its pit life because the wollastonite vein extends onto adjacent Forest Preserve land.”
This statement is misleading. It makes no mention of the fact that NYCO has secured numerous permits for another mine and has been working in that mine for more than a decade to prepare it for wollastonite mining. Why is the existence of the Oakhill mine omitted?
The Bill Justification also states:
“NYCO mines wollastonite on a 260-acre tract in the Town of Lewis, Essex County, with processing facilities in Willsboro, Essex County. It has 95 full time employees and has an annual payroll of $4,600,000. It has 63 vendors within a 100 mile radius and spends $2,300,000 locally per year. It pays $260,000 in local taxes.”
This statement is misleading too. First, as of January 2013 (Adirondack Park Agency permit 99-9II), NYCO’s Lewis mine was an 89.9-acre open pit mine area (54 acres developed) on a 260-acre tract. The Oakhill mine, less than 2 miles away, was originally permitted as a 31-acre open pit mine site on a 455-acre tract. The mine site has been expanded since 2002 and is now over 50 acres in size. NYCO owns and manages two mines with over 700 acres in the Town of Lewis. Again, why is the existence of the Oakhill mine omitted?
The Bill Justification also states:
“Indirect economic benefits to the area are considerable. Thus, the closure of the Lewis mine would have devastating effects on the local economy. Ninety- five full time jobs and significant tax revenue would be lost in one of the more economically depressed area of the State.”
This statement is also misleading. NYCO isn’t going anywhere. In 1998, NYCO received its first permit for a new mine. It has built that mine. NYCO’s own 25-Year plan submitted to the APA in 2006 called for a gradual transition to Oakhill where NYCO estimates there enough wollastonite for at least 16-21 years. NYCO also owns 455 acres around the Oak Hill mine, which contains wollastonite reserves, far beyond the current mine pit of 54 acres.
Any statement in this bill that NYCO will leave the state if this Constitutional Amendment is unsuccessful is simply false. NYCO’s future is not contingent on this proposed Constitutional Amendment. Its “25-Year Plan” submitted to the APA detailed its plans to transition from the Lewis mine to the Oakhill mine.
NYCO has received a string of permit amendments and new permits for the Oakhill mine to build a new access road, increase the amount of aggregate its subcontractor removes, conduct late season mining activities, build wetlands, and an assortment of other mine related activities. NYCO has made a major investment in building and readying the Oakhill mine for wollastonite extraction. The Oakhill mine is a fully functioning mine. NYCO has been planning for years to transition wollastonite mining activities to Oak Hill.
NYCO, and area political representatives, put enormous pressure on the APA in 1998 to approve the Oakhill mine permit. If it did not get Oakhill, they would close or stop investing in the area, went the song back then. Now the song has changed to NYCO will close or stop investing without the Constitutional Amendment. This is not a legitimate argument. Why does the bill threaten the closure of NYCO’s operations if the Constitutional Amendment fails when NYCO’s long-term plan and permits reveal this to be a fabrication?
These threats make it seem like NYCO doesn’t know what it’s doing. To the contrary, NYCO seems to have done a very good job of planning its future to make sure there is no interruption in the supply of materials to its customers. In fact, the overheated rhetoric of the bill justification stands in stark contrast to how deliberately and methodically NYCO has operated to secure its business.
The Bill Justification also states:
“NYCO’s main competition comes from China, India, Finland, and elsewhere in the United States. In order to remain competitive, NYCO must mine as efficiently as possible and ensure customers of long-term reserves. However, recovery from the Lewis mine is now low, as NYCO approaches the end of pit life.”
This statement is not accurate. NYCO’s 2006 “25-Year Plan” states that the percentage of wollastonite at the Oakhill mine is higher than the Lewis mine and that the supply will last at least 16 years, if not longer, at Oakhill. It is simply not an accurate statement that NYCO will suffer in efficiency or will not have reserves if it has to transition, as it has long planned to do, from the Lewis mine to the Oakhill mine. Why does the bill fail to mention NYCO’s data that wollastonite is of a higher quality on Oakhill? Why does the bill fail to mention that NYCO has plentiful reserves at Oakhill?
The Bill Justification is riddled with inaccurate and misleading statements that are contradicted by NYCO’s “25-Year Plan” and by the dozens of APA and DEC permits that NYCO has secured for both of its mines in the Town of Lewis.
There are two benefits to NYCO that I can see for wanting to continue its operations at the Lewis mine by gaining access to the Forest Preserve. First, it delays restoration and remediation costs of the Lewis mine site under the Mine Reclamation Act. That would likely cost a pretty penny and it’s understandable that the company would want to delay these expenses. Second, NYCO seems to like operating two mines simultaneously. There must be an economic benefit for them to do so.
But these benefits to NYCO’s bottom line don’t outweigh the ruinous precedent for the Forest Preserve.
If this Constitutional Amendment goes through and is approved by the voters in a public referendum it means that there is no place in New York beyond the reach of commerce. It means that there is no place beyond the grasp of various corporations and their political bidders.
It means that there is no place in New York that is truly forever wild.