LIVINGSTON COUNTY — The potential shut down of the Azko desalination plant, which treats brine produced since the 1994 Akzo Salt mine collapse, is being called into the public theater by local politicians, prior to a county meeting on Wednesday, September 25, 2013 at 1:30 p.m. Many in the community, including several towns and their attorney, are calling for public discussion of the Azko salt mine, the future of the desalination plant, and the potential significance of the developments for the parallel controversy in the area over hydrofracking.
Today’s event is the regularly scheduled meeting of the Livingston County Board of Supervisors, taking place in the County Board of Supervisors Room at the County Government Center, behind the courthouse. It will be streamed live online by the GeneseeSun.com. County Administrator Ian Coyle stated Wednesday morning that the Azko matter is not scheduled for discussion at Wednesday’s Board meeting, but that a status update is ‘possible.’
According to multiple sources, a few months ago four Town Supervisors were called into a private meeting that was not on the public county agenda or any committee schedule. At the table were Tim Hoffman from the New York State Attorney General’s office, representatives from the DEC, and other senior county officials. Azko and its insurance company, Zurich, were apparently proposing a one-time payment to the State as a permanent settlement in lieu of continued operation of the Cuylerville Road desalination plant. The payment would be to the New York State Attorney General’s Office and the New York State Department of Conservation, in exchange for the shutdown of the plant.
“My clients want a pubic discussion on the matter,” said Jim Campbell, the attorney representing the Towns of Avon, York, and Leicester.
Since the “proposed” deal became public in past weeks, the desalination plant has issued pink slips to many of its employees, and appears to be headed for shutdown on Oct 15th.
The desalination plant sits atop a pipe that runs 500 feet down into the old Akzo salt mine, which acts like a sump pump as the mine fills in steadily with water from the aquifer above. The plant boils out the salt and resells it, and dumps the treated water into a nearby creek. According to officials, it operates at a loss of $200,000 per month.
Since the matter became public, town officials have expressed a number of concerns raised by the potential shutdown. Among those concerns are new doubts about the commitment of the DEC and New York State to protecting natural resources in the county. These concerns may well have an impact in the ongoing debate over hydrofracking, and some towns are planning to reopen their discussions about fracking policies.
According to those in attendance at the meeting with the DEC and Hoffman, Zurich Insurance feels that the plant is not necessary, and it will be hundreds of years before the mine fills up. The mine has a capacity of 65,000 acre feet of water.
Towns and residents are concern that salt mine water will begin, or some say continue, leaking into a major fresh water aquifer in the area, with possible contamination of water that could impact drinking water and agriculture. There is some debate, even among geologists, as to whether or not the water in that aquifer is, or was, drinkable in the first place. Competing studies by Samuel Gowan, from Alfred State, and Tom Johnson, from the USGS, disagree.
“This should be a public discussion,” said New York State Assemblyman Bill Nojay. All towns should sign off before there is any change in the policy regarding the treatment of brine water.”
Hoffman, from the New York State Attorney General’s Office, was involved with the litigation process with Azko back in 1994. According to documents filed at the Milne Library, at the time of the Akzo salt mine collapse Hoffman advocated for full public visibility.