Barton Mines seeks permit through 2096 to operate aside wilderness
By James M. Odato
No one is asking the state to close a local family’s garnet mining operation near the Siamese Ponds Wilderness. No one seeks to send 130 Barton Mines workers into unemployment.
But dozens of people are alerting state regulators that they’d like something closer to solitude up in the hills of North River four miles from Gore Mountain. They could do without the constant hum and common dust in their town of Johnsburg neighborhood near Garnet Hill Lodge and its popular cross-country skiing center.
Since the operators of the sixth-generation mining business petitioned the Adirondack Park Agency in October for a permit amendment to expand its 24/7 operation, property owners are taking the opportunity to complain about their industrial neighbor.
They think there is room for improvement now. And they worry about the future with the drilling and blasting and hauling and piling that Barton Mines has been permitted to do atop Ruby Mountain since 1982. Barton submitted a plan to change its APA permit to allow the mine to keep running through 2096 providing garnet for abrasives used in industry.
“We all love this environment,” said Sherry Fraser, 66, who can walk a few hundred paces to Thirteenth Lake from her home. She and her husband knew about the mine when they bought the place 15 years ago and that it could be seen from popular hiking trails at Hooper Mine and Moxham Mountain.
“The natural essence of this area, its wilderness nature, its scenic, aesthetic, ecological, recreational, and open space resources are threatened by the current, and proposed future expansion,” Fraser told the APA in a letter.
She is president of the association of the 100 property owners in the Garnet Hill community. Their letters to the APA reflect concerns about noise, dust, light pollution and a mountain of waste minerals rising above the treetops in sight of Thirteenth Lake Road and area trails.
The APA received a few letters of support from mine workers or former workers, but the unfavorable missives outnumber those. The agency also got a batch of notes from a newly created group concerned about expansion of the mining operation.
Called Friends of the Siamese Ponds Wilderness, the group includes outdoor enthusiasts worried about harm to the 114,000-acre wilderness next to the mining operation.
Barton Chief Operating Officer Charles R. Barton III has been trying to allay the concerns since spring, reaching out to groups in meetings and Zoom presentations to let them know that the application was coming.
Known as “Chuck,” Barton said the company, formed by his ancestors in 1878 to mine the region, embraces a philosophy of trying to do the right thing. One of those things is to make plans now for the future and go through the state process of amending the permit.
The permit changes he seeks are essential or the mine will close in seven years, he said. To avoid that, he asks state regulators, including the Department of Environmental Conservation, to give Barton 75 more years of mining life by authorizing it to dig deeper into Ruby Mountain, build higher waste piles or “residual mineral piles” as he prefers to call them, and grow the acreage on their property allowed for operation. He was disappointed at the outcry that has arisen.
Those complaints come from several health and environmental professionals sensitive to ecological issues.
“The APA must require a number of mining mitigation measures to protect the quality of life of local residents,” wrote John W. Passacantando, leader of Friends of the Siamese Ponds Wilderness and a former head of Greenpeace USA. He and his wife, Lisa Guide, a former official with the U.S. Department of the Interior, are among the homeowners of the Garnet Hill association.
“The current mine operations are completely incompatible with its location adjacent to this state protected wilderness,” Guide said.
Passacantando said his group seeks compromise and strives for civil debate. “We’re not running this as a NIMBY campaign,” he told the Explorer. “That mine is important to the community and we recognize that.”
Charles Clusen, chairman of Protect the Adirondacks, purchased a residence three years ago on Thirteenth Lake Road near the mine. He called for the APA to schedule an adjudicatory hearing on the permit application. “It’s the only way you get a full examination,” he said.
James Rucker, operator of the Garnet Hill Lodge, told the APA he welcomes 6,000 visitors a year. “Maintaining the pristine nature of the environment in the wilderness areas surrounding the Lodge and their mountains, lakes and streams is critical to the success of our business,” he wrote.
Many expressed displeasure about “fugitive dust” from the Barton works and one physician wondered about a cancer cluster in North River, a notion that he has rescinded upon further study.
Another doctor, Elizabeth Maher, past president of the homeowners association, said she is aware of a couple of cancer survivors in the group. But she isn’t blaming Barton, especially after Barton officials told her there is nothing toxic in their minerals.
She said she’s been in frequent contact with Charles Barton and thinks the parties may be able to work things out. “Chuck’s a good guy,” she said. “His heart’s in a good place.” She added that it is important for residents to raise concerns to the company: “Unless they know there’s a problem they won’t address them.”
Barton’s outreach has included a public presentation at the end of October at the Tannery Pond Community Center, 11 days after the company filed the proposed permit amendment plan.
In an interview, Barton, 56, said as he works toward a completed application, his staff is drawing up strategies to deal with concerns and investigating potential reuses of its waste minerals for multi-use trails after mining has ended. He said 75 people work in the mine and nearby processing plant. Others work in the Glens Falls headquarters and elsewhere.
Yet in a letter to the APA and DEC, Barton showed frustration. He called it unfortunate that neighbors commented without a full review and understanding about planned techniques to “minimize community and environmental impacts.” He claimed that letter-writers gave the APA “significant overstatements and misinformation.”
Asked in an interview what he meant, he emphasized that the mineral composition at Ruby Mountain is not hazardous. He also said he told neighbors before filing the application that there are no “major” dust problems. The company plans to use topsoil and seeding and a suppressant to reduce blowing dust, he said.
He also emphasized that the industrial sound emanating from the plant is at a decibel level below normal conversation, but added “if there are things we can do, we will minimize noise.” The plan calls for more truck transport – 16 trips a day, up from five. The company considers that increase inconsequential. Trucks haul garnet from the mine to a Barton processing plant a few miles away near the Hudson River along Route 28.
In addition, Barton is exploring ways to shade lighting used for security and safety at a couple of buildings in which stone is crushed on top of Ruby. The company is also proposing to dig wells so it won’t draw stream water and it intends to take steps to contain stormwater runoff. These actions are aimed to address water quality concerns about two brooks that are native trout habitat.
As for the big pile of sandy waste, known as tailings, Barton said the mound needs to grow –100 feet higher over decades – and the mining must spread by 40 acres. The company owns 850 acres so it is asking for the right to use more of its real estate for operations and be allowed to dig 160 feet deeper to extract garnet.
The tailings pile would be pushed closer toward the Siamese Ponds Wilderness. The closest recreation path in the wilderness is the Peaked Mountain Trail one mile west.
Barton, who lives in Queensbury, said he and his family have grown up in the region, skiing on Gore Mountain. He said the visibility of his operation should not be possible from the top of the alpine facility, and that the likelihood of seeing the top of Ruby Mountain beyond a few area peaks and trails will not increase. It may decrease, he said, if the reclamation plan, involving planting trees and seeding for vegetation, is successful.
“The resulting final residual mineral storage area will be viewed as a hill/mountain that is covered in trees, much like the mountains surrounding the current site,” the application states. The tailings would spread laterally, a broad shoulder across the horizon as opposed to a peak.
Passacantando said the flat crown of Ruby is akin to a landfill and he will press Barton to sculpt a more aesthetically appealing hilltop. But he said he is rooting for the company and for the concerned residents and for the regulators as he pursues a fair resolution “There is a possibility that no one gets everything they want, but this could be a model for the nation,” he said. “Not everything has to be a cage match.”