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Brett Lawson, superintendent at NYCO Minerals' Lewis mine, points in June 2013 toward a 200-acre parcel of state-owned land, above and behind the rock wall, where the company wants to mine Wollastonite. Also pictured, from left, are NYCO employees Dawn Revette and Brian Shutts. Photo by Chris Knight, Adirondack Daily Enterprise
Brett Lawson, superintendent at NYCO Minerals' Lewis mine, points in June 2013 toward a 200-acre parcel of state-owned land, above and behind the rock wall, where the company wants to mine Wollastonite. Also pictured, from left, are NYCO employees Dawn Revette and Brian Shutts. Photo by Chris Knight, Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Some green groups turn to courts in Adirondack fight

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Four environmental groups say they plan to sue in state court to stop a mining project proposed for the Jay Mountain Wilderness in the Adirondacks.

NYCO Minerals already has mining and processing operations in the Champlain Valley towns of Lewis and Willsboro.

They hope to conduct a series of test drills this summer, searching for a new vein of a mineral called Wollastonite. But green groups say state officials need to do a more thorough environmental review before digging begins.

This latest lawsuit reflects growing tension between some environmental activists and the Cuomo administration over management of the Adirondack Park.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

Revisiting the NYCO debate

The NYCO minerals debate has been one of the most visible, high profile issues in the Park over the last decade.

This 200-acre parcel of forest preserve land known as Lot 8 is likely to be mined under a deal approved by voters in November.  Photo: Dan Plumley, Adirondack Wild
This 200-acre parcel of forest preserve land known as Lot 8 is likely to be mined under a deal approved by voters in November. Photo: Dan Plumley, Adirondack Wild
The company hopes to dig Wollastonite on a 200-acre parcel of the Jay Mountain Wilderness known as “Lot 8” and has promised to compensate New York state by purchasing additional land for the wilderness area and by eventually restoring the property and returning it to the forest preserve.

Speaking last year, John Sheehan spokesman for the environmental group Adirondack Council, called the project a good deal for the Park and local communities.

"Taking into considerations what happens to communities and how they can fit into the economic picture [of the Adirondack Park] is always something we want to do," Sheehan said.

But green groups were fiercely divided.  Two of the largest organizations in the North Country – the Council and the Adirondack Mountain Club – supported the project.  But Protect the Adirondacks and Adirondack Wild were sharply critical of the mining proposal. 

They were dismayed last November when voters statewide approved an amendment to the state constitution that allowed the land swap and test drilling on the parcel.

Shifting from the ballot box to the courts

Speaking on Friday, Adirondack Wild’s Dan Plumley said the lawsuit isn’t an effort to recycle last year’s debate. 

We're trying to secure and sustain the environmental laws of the state and the principles of wilderness management and not allow another debilitating precedent
“We’re not fighting that battle any more.  We realize the Constitution was amended," he said.

"The matters we are bringing all have to do with, what is the proper procedure legally to implement the results of the proposition.”

Since last November’s vote, state officials have gone through a series of procedural steps to clear the way for the test drilling.

Just last month, the Adirondack Park Agency approved an amendment to the management plan for the Jay Mountain Wilderness.

Governor Andrew Cuomo Photo:  Mark Kurtz
Governor Andrew Cuomo Photo: Mark Kurtz
The vote in favor of the amendment was unanimous and drew support from APA commissioner Richard Booth, who has strong ties to the environmental community.

“Obviously this is controversial," Booth said. "My reading of this is it seems to make sense to me, the strategy DEC's lawyers and Jim Townsend have come up with. This may well get litigated, and that's not a surprise. But I think, given the vote of the public, this is what the public anticipated would happen."

Following the APA’s vote, the DEC moved this month to issue permits for the test drilling. 

Dan Plumley argues that those steps were taken too hastily, without the necessary environmental reviews.

"The Department of Environmental Conservation and the Adirondack Park Agency are setting aside environmental laws, setting aside the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, in a way that is patently illegal," he said.

Using the courts to block "troubling precedents"

This lawsuit reflects a particular issue, a particular fight over state environmental law, involving NYCO’s interest in mining within the boundaries of the Jay Mountain Wilderness.

But it also reflects a growing sense among some environmentalists that the APA and DEC are too pro-development in their management of the Adirondacks.

Protect the Adirondacks is one of the groups which joined this lawsuit.  Protect also sued to block APA permits issued in 2012 for the big resort project proposed for Tupper Lake. 

When courts dismissed that lawsuit earlier this month, Protect’s Peter Bauer responded this way.

"We believe that this will set a really difficult and challenging and bad precedent for forest fragmentation that is very troubling," he said.

You hear this word, precedent, a lot among environmentalists worried about the Cuomo administration’s direction in the Park.

The Adirondack Park Agency commission.  File photo: Brian Mann
The Adirondack Park Agency commission. File photo: Brian Mann
They worry that the APA and DEC are taking steps that will weaken the legal standing of the State Land Master Plan and other statutes that shape the Adirondacks.

"We're trying to secure and sustain the environmental laws of the state and the principles of wilderness management," said Adirondack Wild's Dan Plumley on Friday, "and not allow another debilitating precedent to weaken our existing environmental laws."

Those concerns will be tested now in court, but this will be a tough legal fight for environmental activists.  As the recent Adirondack Club and Resort decision showed, judges tend to show broad deference to state agencies and their procedures and decisions. 

One final note is that the two largest green groups in the Park, the Adirondack Mountain Club and Adirondack Council, have not joined this lawsuit. 

Instead, Protect and Adirondack Wild are joined in the suit by organizations outside the region, including Earthjustice and the Sierra Club.

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