Miners use heavy equipment to dig wollastonite ore from a pit mine in the Adirondacks. Adjacent to the mine lies 200 acres of constitutionally protected state forest land that the mining company, NYCO Minerals, wants to swap for 1,500 acres elsewhere so it can expand its mine. The land swap will go to NY voters on the November ballot. Photo taken Tuesday, July 9, 2013, in Lewis, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mary Esch)
LEWIS, N.Y. (AP) — In a ballot proposition that has split environmental groups, a mining company is asking New Yorkers to let it expand its pit mine into 200 acres of constitutionally protected Adirondack forest land so it can follow a vein of a white, crystalline mineral called wollastonite.
In exchange for the land and the ore beneath, NYCO Minerals Inc. proposes giving the state at least 1,500 acres of forest land if the wollastonite deposit is as rich as the company expects it to be. The number of acres would be greater than 1,500 if the state Department of Environmental Conservation determines that the royalty value of the wollastonite is more than $1 million.
While some environmental groups call it a good deal because it will preserve about 100 jobs and provide new access to mountain peaks and trout streams, others say it’s wrong to amend the “forever wild” clause of the state constitution for the financial benefit of a private company.
The proposed swap requires an amendment because Article 14 of the state constitution requires that state-owned Forest Preserve land in the Adirondack Park, a 6 million-acre patchwork of public and private land, be protected as “forever wild,” never to be sold, leased, exchanged or logged.
Exceptions to Article 14 require approval by two consecutive state legislative sessions followed by voter approval. Previous amendments have included land transfers to enable expansion of public cemeteries or airports, improvement of public water supplies and expansion of ski centers.
The Adirondack Mountain Club, which is both an environmental group and an outdoor recreation club, supports the NYCO proposal for expanding its operations in Lewis, about 110 miles north of Albany in the eastern Adirondacks.
“I think this is a very good deal for people who care about the Forest Preserve, especially people who like to hike,” said club executive director Neil Woodworth. Woodworth said the 1,500 acres of land NYCO would give the state include two trout streams and new access to Jay Mountain, where a long, rocky ridgeline provides spectacular views of the Adirondack High Peaks, Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains of Vermont. When NYCO was finished mining, it would restore the landscape on the 200 acres and give it back to the state.
John Sheehan of the Adirondack Council, the park’s largest conservation group, said his organization supports the plan because it meets or exceeds the council’s six principles for judging the merits of land exchanges. Under those criteria, the land swap must achieve a significant improvement to the Forest Preserve and the communities involved. Also, the land being given to the state must be of higher quality than the parcel being exchanged.
But Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, said the exchange would open the door to other companies that want to benefit from land swaps. And he said the Willsboro-based NYCO Minerals, the largest employer in the economically depressed region, was disingenuous when it said it would have to shut down in a few years without the expansion. The company already has permits for a new mine nearby, but it would be cheaper to expand the existing one.
Bauer said the exchange is a bad deal because the 200 acres is rare old growth. However, an analysis by the Wildlife Conservation Society didn’t characterize the land as old growth or as having other special features.
The Atlantic Chapter of the Sierra Club also opposes the land swap, saying it’s not vital to the mining company’s survival and would diminish the strength of the “forever wild” clause.
Woodworth said the swap won’t open the door to other private companies because every proposed amendment is judged on its own merits.
“A private company or individual can always go forward and bring an amendment,” he said. “But most of them fail.”
The proposal will be on the November ballot.
Wollastonite is a white mineral comprised of calcium and silica that easily breaks into needle-like crystals. It’s used in ceramics, paints and other products and as a safe substitute for asbestos. The automotive industry uses the mineral in brakes and clutches and plastic components such as dashboards and bumpers.
The Lewis mine is on a sandy forested hill surrounded by higher mountains. In one pit, there’s a 60-foot-tall gray wall of wollastonite ore 50 feet from the edge of the coveted 200-acre state-owned tract that NYCO calls Lot 8. Miners had to remove only 20 feet of sand to get to the mineral deposit in that pit.
In a second pit nearby, miners had to blast and cart away about 80 feet of cap rock, which now walls the pit in layers tinged black and orange with garnet, before they hit wollastonite.
“The economics of Lot 8 look really sweet because the mineral is closer to the surface,” said Mark Buckley, a NYCO engineer.
Buckley said the mine will be filled in with rock and sand and landscaped with native trees after the wollastonite is exhausted, according to state reclamation requirements.