Array of 62,000 panels would be installed near former Superfund site
By Gwendolyn Craig
The state’s first “build ready” solar project and the largest ever proposed in the Adirondack Park could get approval by the Adirondack Park Agency on Thursday.
It is a 20-megawatt electricity generation project – 62,235 solar panels able to power about 4,500 homes, erected over 111 acres of an old mine tailings pile in the town of Clifton in St. Lawrence County. The project is across the street from a former federal Superfund site where a million gallons of oil leached into the ground and Little River.
The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) is seeking permit approval for a major public utility use from APA commissioners. The project is proposed in one of the rare industrially zoned areas of the park. It is also near National Grid’s Star Lake substation, though about 78,000 linear feet of underground connector lines and conduit would need to be installed to make the hook up.
APA staff have recommended the project be approved with conditions.
NYSERDA’s “build ready” program prioritizes renewable energy projects on commercial sites, brownfields, landfills, former industrial sites and other underutilized areas that are also in proximity to the electric grid. Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo first announced the 20-megawatt array in April 2021 and called it “the innovative thinking that we need to put into action in order to compete in a green energy economy.” At the time of the announcement, the APA was still reviewing its regulatory role.
Now, according to the APA draft permit, the agency is reviewing the project as a major public utility use in industrial use and resource management lands. It would be a subdivision in a resource management area and a new land use on resource management lands within 1/8th mile of tracts of forest preserve classified wilderness. It would fall within 300 feet of the edge of right-of-way of state highways in the park. Conditions agency staff recommend requiring include decommissioning plans, compliance with wetlands regulations, erosion and sediment control plans, examples of activities that would need further APA authorization and other stipulations.
The land is owned by Benson Mines, an iron-ore mine that closed in the 1970s after nearly a century of operation. The mine was once owned by J&L Steel Corp. and in the 1950s was considered “the largest open pit magnetite mine in the world and employed up to 1,000 people,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A portion of the J&L Steel. land became a federal Superfund site in 2013 because a plume of more than 1 million gallons of No. 2 fuel oil was seeping into Little River, a tributary of the Oswagatchie River.
A spokesperson for NYSERDA said the tailings pile where the solar panels are proposed is not part of an enforced EPA Superfund cleanup.
The DEC said that the petroleum polluted site is across the street from the mine. DEC and EPA “conducted extensive remedial efforts” for decades, but DEC has recently assumed management of the site under the state’s spills program. Responsibilities include “collection and disposal of thousands of gallons of free product collected annually as part of ongoing monitoring.”
Stuart Carlisle, director of the mine, told the Adirondack Explorer in April 2021 that he does some timber harvesting on his property now, and works with a contractor to sell aggregate to construction companies. The tailings pile, Carlisle had said, is mostly crushed stone with a sandy consistency.
Environmental advocates weigh in
Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, has visited the proposed site and believes it is the right place for renewable energy installations.
“It’s a landscape like the moon in places,” Bauer said. “It’s just ripped up, sandy, sandy earth, scrub vegetation. It’s really weird because it’s surrounded by forest.”
David Gibson, managing partner of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, said the site makes sense for the project, but he had concerns about the five acres of tree-cutting included in NYSERDA’s application. He believes NYSERDA should compensate for the loss of mature trees by planting trees elsewhere.
Bauer said the solar array was worth it, considering the state’s climate emissions reduction goals. The Adirondack Council also said it is in support.
Gibson had questions about the completion of the Superfund cleanup work, and blamed the APA’s “poor practice” of using a checklist on its application rather than its past “findings of fact” method. The checklist, Gibson said, does not offer the public and commissioners awareness of the site’s history.
“DEC’s ongoing site management activities at the site would not have an impact on the potential solar development, and DEC looks forward to the beneficial reuse of this large industrial area,” the department said.
NYSERDA’s application materials, which the Explorer received through a Freedom of Information Law request, was over 6,000 pages. The documents included plans for solar development, stormwater pollution discharge, snow management, visual impact assessment and decommissioning plus a glare analysis, logs and charts from test boring into the area’s soils and a lease agreement between NYSERDA and Benson Mines.
According to the April 6, 2021 lease, NYSERDA will pay Benson Mines a fee of $24,549. It will also pay $1,000 per acre or partial acre per year, with an increase of 2% annually on the anniversary of the effective date. The lease states the premises is about 244.49 acres, which would cost about $245,000 a year. NYSERDA could assign the lease and obligations to a limited liability company it formed called BR Project 1.
APA staff member Ariel Lynch asked NYSERDA the purpose of the LLC, records show. Tracy Darougar, project manager for NYSERDA’s build-ready program, responded that the corporation “is the vehicle by which NYSERDA obtains development rights,” and that when the state selects a solar developer, “we transfer the LLC membership interest to the developer as opposed to all the individual development rights.”
A NYSERDA spokesperson wrote it intends to transfer its membership interest via a public auction. NYSERDA hopes construction will start between 2023 and 2024, with electricity flowing to the grid by November 2024.
A spokesperson for NYSERDA said it is submitting local permitting applications to the town and St. Lawrence County for approvals this month. The New York Independent System Operator, a group that ensures power system reliability, is doing an interconnection analysis. NYSERDA also needs permits for building, road crossing, state pollutant discharge and construction discharges.
It is not yet clear how the Town of Clifton may benefit from the project. NYSERDA said it cannot comment on potential payment in lieu of taxes agreements as discussions are ongoing. A spokesperson said there will be economic benefits to the community through construction, operation and maintenance jobs, lease payments to landowners and tax payments to communities. NYSERDA is also looking at the financial feasibility of electric vehicle charging stations in the town.
Clifton Supervisor Charles Hooven said there have been early discussions with NYSERDA about potential benefits, but he doesn’t expect anything until there is a solar investor ready. He’s excited to see something happening at the site, where prior proposals failed. Some in town believe the mine will reopen again, he said.
“It existed for so long,” Hooven said. He did not think that would happen, and said he was keeping an open mind to solar development.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wrote that there were no threatened or endangered species or critical habitats on the property. The DEC found the land does support a population of pink shinleaf, a threatened flowering plant in New York. There are also wetlands on the site and one intermittent stream.
The solar array is not expected to cause any negative visual impacts within a 5-mile radius. An environmental engineering firm NYSERDA hired said considering the industrial surroundings, “the project will not impact the overall importance or character of the park.”
A NYSERDA spokesperson also confirmed a portion of a local snowmobile trail has been rerouted to accommodate the solar project. He said small portions of the route were moved slightly east, though it will continue to connect the northern Junction 40 to the southern Junction 15 as it traverses Benson Mines land.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct a previous version, which said the Benson Mines solar project was the largest approved in the park. The APA approved a 20-megawatt solar project in Ticonderoga in 2021. It has also been updated to clarify that the solar project will not be visible from any public locations.