Five years later, voter-approved land swap fails to materialize as mine drops local workers
By James M. Odato
Five years ago voters changed the New York Constitution to give an Adirondack mining business the right to dig in the state Forest Preserve, in part to save local jobs.
So far, it hasn’t worked out that way.
Since the 2013 vote, NYCO Minerals has sold its operations and assets to an industrial-minerals conglomerate called Imerys. This Paris-based company has not taken advantage of the opportunity afforded by the constitutional amendment and instead has laid off or reassigned workers at its mine in the town of Lewis, angered union representatives, and irked people concerned about the economic vibrancy of the region.
“The whole thing makes me mad,” said Peter Goodwin, NYCO’s former president and CEO. “Big company didn’t look out for the little community.”
Others also are troubled by the developments, including several elected leaders who campaigned for Proposition 5 at NYCO’s behest. The proposal, which passed 53 percent to 47 percent, authorized the state to give the company two hundred acres in the Jay Mountain Wilderness in exchange for other lands of equal or greater value. It was sold as a job-saving measure, but critics argued that opening up a Wilderness Area to mining would create a bad precedent and weaken Article 14, which mandates that Forest Preserve lands “shall be forever kept as wild forest lands.”
The Park’s environmental groups split over the proposition. The Adirondack Council and Adirondack Mountain Club endorsed it, whereas Protect the Adirondacks and Adirondack Wild opposed it.
Goodwin said the land offered by the state—known as Lot 8—contains high-quality deposits of wollastonite, a mineral used in ceramics, paints, plastics, and auto-body parts, and as a substitute for asbestos. The property adjoins the company’s Seventy Road mine, which is nearing the end of its life. Former employees say extracting ore from the state side should prove easier and less expensive.
Yet the company got out of the mining business this year. It started subcontracting the work to a crew from Ludlow, Vermont, and mining is focused at an existing pit in Lewis at Oak Hill instead of the Seventy Road mine. The Oak Hill wollastonite is inferior to what had been mined at Seventy Road and what exists at Lot 8, former and current employees said.
After Proposition 5 passed, NYCO conducted test drills in Lot 8, but Imerys won’t reveal the findings. It seems that the company has no immediate plans to go forward with the expansion project that NYCO said was necessary to preserve jobs at the mine and at its two Willsboro processing plants.
Mark Buckley, who served as NYCO’s mine manager, plant engineer, and environmental, health and safety manager during his twenty-six-year tenure, said the samples were in boxes and not sent for testing as far as he knows.
Buckley, laid off by Imerys in 2015, said the current managers take their direction from bosses outside the region and in Europe, and have difficulty getting authorization to spend money. Buckley was let go just a few weeks after Imerys purchased the company but after the exploratory drilling.
“I know what an asset Lot 8 could be to the company, and I believe there is a fair amount of high-quality ore there. I managed when we mined right up to the boundary, and I know the quality and thickness there. It upsets me with all the work done on this and the company didn’t move on it; it means it would extend the life of the mine here for the community, which could extend it for five, ten years,” he said.
Imerys officials declined requests for interviews. A spokesman, John Brodt of Behan Communications, which was part of the substantial lobbying campaign to pass Proposition 5, said the Lot 8 expansion remains a possibility.
“NYCO remains very much interested in proceeding with the land swap involving Lot 8,” Brodt said. “The new owners believe additional exploratory drilling is necessary before the swap proceeds in order to develop the most accurate estimates possible of the quantity, quality, and value of the wollastonite located there.”
Brodt said Imerys—the NYCO names lingers locally—will work with the state Department of Environmental Conservation to develop a plan for the drilling. In an interview, a DEC official who did not wish to be identified said Imerys has done some analysis of its sampling from three years ago but wants more data. Last year the company proposed horizontal drilling from its property into the Lot 8 wall. Since then, Imerys has made no move to apply for a temporary drilling permit, the official said. The Lot 8 project seems to have moved to the back burner, the official said.
“We’d like to see some action,” the DEC official said. Based on the agreement to allow for a land swap, Lot 8 will be valued at a minimum of $1 million and potentially more based on appraisals that would be done before any land swap.
Brodt said Imerys completed operations at the Seventy Road mine in 2016. Yet, when Seventy Mine closes, the company is supposed to reclaim the land, perhaps a $3 million seeding and filling of the open pit, said Goodwin.
The uncertainty of the company’s plans and its change of priorities have confused local officials and workers. Several employees have left the company or retired, and jobs have not been filled. Total employment, reported by the company as 105 when the proposition was on the ballot, is down by at least thirty. About forty-nine union workers represented by the United Steelworkers remain on the payroll.
In 2014 there were more than seventy unionized workers, said Ray Bettis, the union representative with USW Local 4. “In the last two years it’s been one of the hardest units with cutback of hours and hour changes and working conditions,” he said. “Little by little they are undermining and replacing union members with subcontractors. And sometimes those subcontractors are coming from Vermont. They are not putting money into New York.
“All those residents in Willsboro fought hard to get those mining rights, and they’re bitter.”
Also among the displeased is Lewis Supervisor James Monty. He said Imerys has let him down as a corporate neighbor and is attempting “union busting.” Monty said communication has just about ceased since the company dismissed the mine manager, who had attended every town board meeting for years.
Former Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward, who pushed for passage of the proposition, said she doesn’t regret her advocacy but is bothered by the things she is hearing in the community about NYCO.
“I am very concerned about them bringing jobs in from another state; that is a huge concern,” said Sayward, who heads Willsboro’s local economic development corporation.
Senator Betty Little said she hopes to talk to the company about its future plans. “The whole reason for constitutional amendment was to keep the company here and they would grow. Unfortunately they got bought out and things changed,” she said.
After Imerys took control of NYCO, which had been owned by Greece-based S&B, it terminated local bosses and brought in its own managers, losing hundreds of years of experience at the operation. The company had changed hands several times by then but had maintained the tradition of keeping the local supervisors and managers who understood the tricky nature of mining and cleansing wollastonite, said Goodwin and Buckley.
Imerys, a huge mining operator, assigned its own regional and international staff to oversee Willsboro and Lewis. The company is well positioned in mining talc, a much softer mineral, and has tried to market it instead of wollastonite, Buckley said.
When Imerys closed the mining operation and farmed out the work, the local mining workers were given jobs in processing in Willsboro, bumping less-senior union workers. “They said it was a business decision for more efficiency,” Monty said.
Over time jobs decreased as people retired or sought better situations elsewhere, said Kevin Jacques, a former union representative who retired three years ago after thirty-seven years in the mine. He said several men quit after he left.
“Guys got out,” he said. “Didn’t want to be treated like dogs.”
He said the company sought productivity but did away with the traditional productivity bonuses. The company also discontinued safety bonuses that had been good for $1,200 or more.
Instead of a safety bonus, workers get a T-shirt at an annual luncheon, said Kevin King, a longtime processing-plant employee. The new owners, he said, “don’t understand what it takes to run this place.”
The crews that are mining wollastonite are from a talc mine operated by a sister company of Imerys in Vermont. “This place is unique,” King said. “You’d be hard-pressed to find any place like this anywhere in the world. This stuff is not talcum powder. This is abrasives.”
Buckley, who still lives in the region and talks to former colleagues often, said the aging equipment in Willsboro has been breaking down and needs upgrading. The maintenance staff has been cut substantially, adding to the problems. Orders and sales are down, said Buckley, who is now an independent engineering consultant in Willsboro.
Since Imerys assumed control of the company, plant safety violations and fines have soared, according to public records. In 2007 there were ten citations by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration and $1,140 in fines. That grew to fifty citations and $59,155 in fines in 2016, fifty-three citations and $20,033 in fines last year, and twelve citations and $5,597 in fines based on first-quarter 2018 records. Employment has dropped, according to the agency’s records. They show that the number of workers from ninety-three in 2013 to seventy in the first quarter of this year.
By comparison, the RT Vanderbilt Minerals wollastonite mining operation in Gouverneur has never had more than ten citations or more than $3,900 in fines in any year dating to 2007. Vanderbilt may be picking up some of NYCO’s traditional customers. Vanderbilt President Ian Begley said changes under Imerys have “not been to our disadvantage, let me put it that way.” He thinks Imerys may be trying to extend the life of its New York mines by pushing business to its Mexican operation.
Sean McPhail, a thirty-year employee who was moved from the Lewis mine to the Willsboro plant, believes Imerys is sending customers to Mexico because the labor there is cheaper. “I’m very disgusted with this company,” he said.
Imerys has outsourced for many things that were done and purchased locally and hurt themselves by getting rid of local managers, McPhail said. “They fired anybody who knew anything about wollastonite.”
Buckley, the former NYCO manager, said the company had explored reusing its underground mine in Willsboro, not used since the 1980s. However, Willsboro Supervisor Shaun Gilliland said the company’s regional boss told him that the company is focused on its open pit mining.
Gilliland said he appreciates Imerys, which continues to provide free road material. He doesn’t know why the company isn’t mining Lot 8, but he suggested the company may not want to fight with environmental groups. “They’re in a state of trying to figure out some sort of business model, I imagine,” he said. “It’s not government’s place to tell a business how to run their business, until it affects the town economically or otherwise.”
A coalition of environmental groups opposed Proposition 5 and later unsuccessfully sued to keep NYCO from drilling at Lot 8. Adirondack Wild’s David Gibson said the local community, voters, and Governor Andrew Cuomo, who advanced the Proposition 5 measure, should feel “deceived.”
A spokesman for Cuomo did not respond to a request for comment.
The Lot 8 project, billed as urgently needed to save jobs, exemplifies how proponents can oversell legislation and ballot proposals, Gibson said. He thinks the state legislature should impose a deadline on the land swap or pass a constitutional amendment to strike the language.
Among the proposition supporters in the organized environmental movement, Adirondack Mountain Club Executive Director Neil Woodworth said Imerys has demonstrated its disinterest in moving forward with the Lot 8 land swap. He said that’s fine with him.
“We saw it as a way of adding quite a bit of land to the Jay Mountain Wilderness and we saw it as a way of preserving a lot of jobs and a way of life,” Woodworth said. “Now it’s become crystal clear that neither of those outcomes is going to happen.
“As far as I’m concerned I’m glad the deal is dead, in my opinion, and I’m glad that Lot 8 is staying as it is.” He said Imerys didn’t want to give up parcels previously identified for a swap because of the potential it holds mineral deposits.
Whatever happens, it seems likely that Imerys’s Adirondack properties will run out of wollastonite in less than a generation. Gilliland, the Willsboro supervisor, said the company’s regional manager told him the Oak Hill site has fourteen years left. The ore may be expensive to mine because of rock overlying the deposits.
Goodwin, the former CEO OF NYCO, said the priority of Imerys seems to be selling talc. The local company, once such a source of pride, has become an “orphan” within the giant Imerys, he said. The former owners, he said, were sincere about their plans to mine Lot 8.
“It just sits there in limbo,” he said. “It turned out to be a very sad, unfortunate sin for the community and the employees.”