WILLSBORO -- An environmental group hopes to block a proposed state constitutional amendment that would allow NYCO Minerals Inc. to mine beneath the state Forest Preserve.
Protect the Adirondacks issued its memorandum of opposition to the state Senate and Assembly late last week in the hopes of garnering legislative backing for its stand when the legislation was re-introduced Tuesday in the Senate.
The NYCO amendment — which last year received the first of two necessary consecutive passages in the Legislature — could see the company swap about 2,000 acres on the north end of the Jay Mountain Wilderness Area for access to a vein of wollastonite (used in the manufacture of plastic, adhesives and paints), which plunges from the company’s pit immediately adjacent to the Forest Preserve beneath about 200 acres of state land in Essex County.
If passed this year by the Legislature and then in a statewide referendum, it would be the first time the state constitution was altered for the benefit of a private corporation in nearly 40 years, a move that Protect the Adirondacks Executive Director Peter Bauer sees as a potentially devastating precedent.
“If we can give a piece of Forest Preserve to a mining company, that means no piece of New York is truly forever wild,” Bauer said, defending what he sees as the cut-and-dry nature of Article XIV of the state constitution, commonly known as the “Forever Wild Clause.”
“We think that the ruinous price for the Forest Preserve outweighs any benefits of this legislation,” Bauer said.
Land swaps in the past have only been used for public projects, including local water and sewer infrastructure, electrical grids and cemeteries.
The NYCO land swap is paired with the Township 40 swap, an amendment that would end a century-old land dispute in Raquette Lake in Hamilton County, where more than 100 property owners and the state both claim ownership of roughly 1,000 acres.
The Township 40 amendment, which is widely supported by local governments and environmental groups alike, moved unanimously Tuesday out of the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee and is headed to the Finance Committee before reaching the Senate floor.
The region’s state lawmakers have claimed that NYCO could be shuttered without access to the wollastonite vein, potentially costing Essex County more than 120 jobs.
But Bauer noted that the company, in 1998, was permitted to open a second mine a few miles away at Oak Hill and has invested heavily in that site, a sign NYCO isn’t going anywhere.
The company could move solely to the Oak Hill site, but mining at Oak Hill costs more than at the original site and there’s only an estimated 20 years of mining left there.
Mining solely at Oak Hill would make NYCO “less competitive on the world market,” according to NYCO adviser Peter Goodwin. The Willsboro mine has just three or four years worth of ore remaining without the amendment. Without the 10-year extension the company believes the swap would facilitate, the company would be substantially less likely to invest in new equipment and personnel in the Adirondacks because of plunging revenue and increasing costs, Goodwin said.
“Obviously, the environmental groups are the stumbling block,” Goodwin said.
The state would get the 200 acres back after mining stopped, Goodwin said.
Environmental groups hold substantial sway in the Legislature, especially in the Democrat-controlled Assembly. The NYCO amendment passed the lower house by a 135-6 vote last year, but only after Environmental Conservation Committee Chairman Bob Sweeney, D-Lindenhurst, backed it.
International Paper was granted a land swap with Forest Preserve lands in the 1970s through a constitutional amendment.
The Adirondack Council, a particularly influential environmental group, has listed criteria it wants for the parcel the state would be getting as part of the swap, according to the organization’s spokesman, John Sheehan. The Adirondack Council won’t support the amendment until the state can assure the group that its criteria have been met, Sheehan said.
Assemblyman Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, who’s sponsoring the NYCO amendment, said he has yet to ask Sweeney about the majority’s opinion of the bill amid the opposition and concerns from environmentalists.
The Adirondack Council shares Protect the Adirondacks’ concerns about precedent, Sheehan said.
NYCO is negotiating with the landowner of the 2,000 acres on the north end of the Jay Mountain Wilderness Area, Goodwin said.
That parcel has been heavily logged and isn’t considered environmentally desirable, Bauer said.
The second and final passage of an amendment, which sends it to the voting public, is almost universally harder than the first round, numerous lawmakers have said.
The NYCO amendment, sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Little, R-Queensbury, was scheduled for debate Tuesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The committee meeting was postponed Tuesday morning.
“I’m not too concerned about Protect’s opposition,” Stec said. “They oppose everything.”
But Bauer, noting that the proposed amendment makes no mention of the Oak Hill mine, argues that the legislation is an underhanded attempt to slide through the legislation without all of the facts.
“I’ve never seen a bill, over my 20 years of watching, this disingenuous,” he said.