LEWIS - The state Assembly gave final legislative approval Wednesday to a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow for a land swap between the state and NYCO Minerals Inc.
The proposed amendment, which has split the Park's environmental groups but is backed by a broad coalition of elected and economic development officials in the region, will now be put on the statewide ballot in the November general election.
"We're very pleased," NYCO spokesman John Brodt told the Enterprise Thursday. "This land swap is critical to NYCO being able to compete competitively as an Adirondack business working in a global marketplace. This is very important to us and the future of our 100-plus Adirondack jobs."
Brian Shutts, a geologic technician with NYCO Minerals, holds up a rock embeed with wollastonite, a rare, white mineral used in ceramics, automotive brakes and clutches, at the site of NYCO’s wollastonite mine in Lewis on Thursday.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
NYCO is the world's biggest producer and supplier of wollastonite, a rare, white mineral used commercially as a reinforcement or additive in ceramics, paints, plastics, friction products and various building products. It has an active wollastonite mine in the town of Lewis, which the Enterprise toured Thursday, and a processing facility in Willsboro.
NYCO wants to conduct exploratory drilling for wollastonite on a 200-acre parcel of state Forest Preserve land in the Jay Mountain Wilderness Area, next to its existing mine. The company has mined up to the boundary of the state land, where a large outcrop of wollastonite can be seen.
"We know there's something there because that wall is wollastonite, but we don't know how far back it goes," said Brian Shutts, a NYCO geologic technician.
If the exploratory drilling determines the mineral is in large enough quantities on the parcel, NYCO would mine it and, once the operation is complete, the site would be reclaimed and returned to the Forest Preserve.
In return, the company would give the state land valued at $1 million that would expand the Forest Preserve by at least 1,500 acres.
NYCO officials and employees say access to the 200 acres - known as Lot 8 - would extend the life of NYCO's mining operation in Essex County, and the associated jobs and economic spinoff, by at least eight to 10 years. The company currently has about 100 employees.
"There's roughly two to three more years in this mine right here, and if they don't get Lot 8, they'll close us down," said Kevin Jacques, who's worked for NYCO for 34 years and is a local United Steelworkers union leader. "It would affect a lot of people if NYCO went down. The people that haul the ore down to the plant, the stores around the area would be affected by it. A lot of families would be hurting. We'd be on unemployment."
The proposal has the support of a host of politicians and economic development officials in the region. Two environmental groups, the Adirondack Council and the Adirondack Mountain Club, also support it due to the net gain for the Forest Preserve.
Several other environmental organizations have opposed it, including Protect the Adirondacks, Adirondack Wild and the Atlantic Chapter of the Sierra Club. They have argued that the amendment sets a bad precedent as it's being undertaken for private commercial gain, not a public municipal purpose like other Forest Preserve amendments. Critics have also said the company owns land 2 miles away from its Lewis site that has at least 15 to 20 years of wollastonite that's a higher grade than what's in the Lewis mine.
"The NYS Legislature should disapprove of this resolution because it represents an unnecessary exploitation of the Forest Preserve and the Jay Mountain Wilderness Area, because clear alternatives exist, and because no clear public purpose and benefit is achieved by it," Adirondack Wild wrote in a memo opposing the amendment.
Brodt argues that the other company-owned site, known as Oak Hill, would be more expensive to develop because it has a larger overburden of sand and rock that would have to be removed first.
"The higher costs to capture that wollastonite there would put NYCO at a competitive disadvantage right now in the global market, as far as trying to keep our prices competitive," Brodt said. "Lot 8, on the other hand, is located immediately adjacent to our existing mine. It provides a far more cost-effective opportunity for NYCO to continue mining in the Adirondacks."
As for setting a bad precedent, Brodt said NYCO has followed the rigorous process that was set up to amend the Forever Wild clause of the state constitution.
"It's a careful, deliberative process that requires approval by the Legislature twice followed by the approval of the state voters," he said. "Voters have made responsible choices on these questions throughout the years, and we hope they will feel our proposal is the right choice for the economy and the environment. There's a gain of 1,500 acres, the state is made whole on Lot 8, and 100 good-paying Adirondack jobs are protected for the future. We think that's a win-win for everybody."
Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or email@example.com.