ALBANY - The state Senate gave second passage Wednesday to a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow for a land swap between the state and a mining company in the Essex County town of Lewis.
The proposal, which has split the Adirondack Park's environmental advocates, still needs second passage from the state Assembly before it can be presented to voters on the general election ballot in November.
NYCO Minerals Inc. 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.
The amendment would allow NYCO to conduct exploratory drilling for wollastonite on a 200-acre parcel of state Forest Preserve land next to its existing mine. NYCO would share the data and information from the exploratory drilling with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which would then appraise the value of the parcel and convey it to NYCO.
In return, NYCO would give the state lands of equal or greater value, not to exceed $1 million, to add to the Forest Preserve. If exploratory drilling takes place but the land exchange does not ultimately occur, NYCO would be required to convey to the state, for inclusion into the Forest Preserve, at least the same number of acres that were disturbed by the exploration activity.
At the end of NYCO's mining operation, the company would then have to convey the parcel back to the Forest Preserve.
"NYCO's continued success is vitally important to our North Country economy and to those who depend on it for their livelihoods," state Sen. Betty Little, who sponsored the constitutional amendment in her chamber, said in a prepared statement. "In exchange for the conveyance of land, the state will receive land of far greater financial and recreational value. The agreement is sensitive to economic and environmental considerations."
The proposed amendment has the backing of the Adirondack Council and the Adirondack Mountain Club. In a press release, Adirondack Council Executive Director Willie Janeway said state officials modified the proposal to address his organization's concerns.
"The proposed land swap now exceeds our standards for supporting constitutional amendments involving the 'forever wild' clause," Janeway said. "The people of the state would give up 200 acres of Forest Preserve next to an existing wollastonite mine, and receive at least 1,500 acres of land containing better wildlife habitat and greater recreational opportunities. Over time, those 200 acres will come back into the Forest Preserve."
Janeway said the new state lands would include five new parcels next to the Jay Mountain Wilderness Area and a sixth beside the Taylor Pond Wild Forest and the Bouquet River.
But other environmental groups, including Protect the Adirondacks, Adirondack Wild and the Atlantic Chapter of the Sierra Club, are sounding the alarm about the proposal. In a press release, Protect Executive Director Peter Bauer said the amendment sets "a terrible precedent.
"The 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," Bauer said.
Past constitutional amendments in the Adirondacks have included the expansion of a town cemetery in Keene, expansion of a public airport in Arietta, a public water supply in Raquette Lake and the extension of a new electric transmission line through Colton to Tupper Lake.
Bauer also said the language in the NYCO bill contains errors and misstatements, and omits critical information. Among other things, Bauer said the bill makes no mention of a second wollastonite mine the company owns 2 miles away, which reportedly has at least 25 years of wollastonite that's a higher grade than what's in the Lewis mine.
"This legislation sets a new standard for misinformation that's truly troubling," Bauer said. "This is no way to make decisions about the future of the public Forest Preserve."
NYCO has 95 full-time employees. Little's press release said the expected life of its current Lewis mine is three years. Mining the 200 acres of Forest Preserve could extend the mine's life by 13 to 15 years, the release states.