February 6, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 35°F


What lies beneath

Like millions of employees around the country this morning, Cargill employees will begin their workday waiting to cram into an elevator that will bring them to their job site. But as this elevator descends 2,300 feet below Cayuga Lake, workers spend six minutes completely in the dark, with the exception of the detachable lights on each of their hardhats.

Shawn Wilczynski, mine superintendent for Cargill Deicing Technology, shows assistant news editor Erin Geismar a steel rod used to drill into the mine. Cargill, a mining company based out of Lansing, N.Y., bought six miles of natural salt mine in 1970 and produces the rock salt that de-ices roads. Nick Deel/The Ithacan

The Lansing salt mine, home of Cargill Deicing Technology, is a dingy, six-mile system of 10-foot-tall corridors and cave-like rooms developed in a salt bed under the lake. Cargill extracts nearly 2.5 million tons of rock salt, used to de-ice road in the winter, each year.
Steve Horne, mine manager, said working underground often comes with misconceptions.

“People view mining as being inherently dangerous,” he said. “But it’s just a complex work environment. There’s just more [to] managing it, is all.”

A booming salt industry in the Finger Lakes region is the result of a shallow body of salt water that covered the region more than 300 million years ago. It left a bed of thick salt

deposits from all the way west to Lake Erie, north to Ontario, Canada, and south through Pennsylvania.

Commercial salt production in the area began in Syracuse, on the shores of Onondaga Lake, during the War of 1812. Salt refining was the city’s largest industry, but it declined around 1920 because of environmental concerns about damage to the lake.Currently, the Resof Salt Mine, near Rochester, and Cargill are the only two operating in the state.

Miners at Cargill work eight-hour shifts from either 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.; 2 p.m. to 10 p.m.; or 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Once underground, the workers pack into benches on the flatbeds of Chevy pickup trucks to drive 30 to 45 minutes to the six-level, the unit Horne said Cargill has been mining since the company purchased the mine in the 1970s. The trucks drive through a large system of corridors to get to the production panels, 400-foot-wide rooms where miners take the salt.

Shawn Wilczynski, mine superintendent, said to develop mining panels safely, Cargill drills on the shoreline of Cayuga Lake to determine how far down the salt bed lies. He said the company hires three outside contractors to evaluate current and potential locations of mine development, and has also conducted seismic studies and computer modeling to run digital trial and error tests. Currently there are no plans to mine at deeper levels, he said, though Cargill will continue to mine north up the lake during the next 50 years.

“We don’t just rest on what we think is right,” Wilczynski said. “We want to bring in the experts to verify that it’s right.”

In the production panels, loose salt clouds the air and the floor is sand-like, turning up large chunks of salt-like rocks on a beach. The room echoes with the constant hum of machinery and the only source of light are their headlights.

Jason Bates, 25, has worked as a Cargill production miner for seven years. He said the dark is just something you get used to.

“At first it was a little strange, but after a while you get used to it,” he said. “It’s just like working in a warehouse without any windows, I guess.”

When a room has been developed for mining, the first part of a detailed process is to drill six holes, each a foot in diameter, into the wall. After the initial holes are in place, a slag drill, with a long steel rod, drills small holes that are then filled with Ammonium Nitrate Fuel Oil and detonated to create a controlled explosion inside the wall.

The explosion breaks apart the salt in the walls and Wilczynski said one room yields about 500 tons, though only a portion of it is sellable.

When the room is “bombed out,” the load haul dump (LHD), a low-profile underground loader, scoops up 200 tons of salt at a time and retreats backward until they dump the salt at the conveyer belt.

LHDs and other mining equipment, some of which cost up to a million dollars, are sawed into pieces in order to be transported to the mine and then put back together by a crew in the mine’s workstation.

“It’s … frustrating to buy pieces of equipment that are almost a million dollars, tear them apart, cut them in pieces, take them down this elevator, and then put them back together again to operate them,” Wilczynski said.

As it brings down equipment, the elevator also rushes 275,000 cubic feet of fresh air down the shaft. But the drop in temperature as the elevator descends is no indication of the temperature in the mine, which remains about 70 degrees year-round.

Horne said the benefit to being underground is experiencing the kind of climate consistency that most upstate New Yorkers can’t count on.

“It’s a pretty consistent environment,” he said. “It’s warm in the winter and cool in the summer.”

Bruce MacDonald ’96 has worked at Cargill for two and a half years. He works as operations coordinator, a surface job, but his long history in mining has allowed him to develop a passion for the craft.

“There’s not much better for a boy than to come to a job where you get to play with big equipment and blow things up every day,” MacDonald said.

Before attending Ithaca College for social studies education, MacDonald was washing dishes and mining in the northwest territories of Canada. Even after eight years of teaching in Ithaca and the surrounding area, MacDonald said when the job market for teachers began to dwindle, he returned to his roots.

“Social studies teachers are a dime a dozen,” he said. “And I just like this more.”

When he first started at Cargill, MacDonald spent over a year on different work crews before moving to a surface job. Now he keeps a personal collection of crystallized salt on his desk to remind him of his time underground.

He said where he comes from, there is a deeper reverence for the life and work of a miner that started in the 1800s, when Americans migrated west panning for gold.

“It may not be as appreciated here, from people who don’t know as much about the history of mining, who started here and it’s just a job,” he said. “But if you come from a mining town or a mining background, there really is a lot of history, a lot of knowledge, a lot of romantic notions.”

MacDonald said mining was typically generational, but that isn’t the case with Cargill, where for many miners — it’s just a job.

“In small towns where mineral extraction is the primary industry and the primary employer, [mining] most certainly [runs in families],” he said. “But not here.”

In 1979, Gossa Tsegaye ’76, assistant professor of television-radio, was also attracted by the great history and spirit of mining. He spent a year filming a documentary about the mine. That documentary now resides in the Lansing school district’s library.

“I looked at it from the human element,” he said. “The spirit that … ties miners together.”

In the documentary “Mining and Minding Salt: The Lansing Way,” one of the things Tsegaye found was the pride of the workers and the tendency for mining to run in families. But he said times have changed — even since the ’80s — and companies like Borg-Warner and the Cornell Industrial Park have transformed the job market. He compared it to the dwindling family farm business.

“Big corporations are taking over,” he said. “The modern world is really fighting to take people away from this sort of work.”

Tsegaye said he spoke with miners who had worked at Cargill for more than 30 years and the “familyhood” of the workers was evident. But Bates said when working for eight hours under closed conditions, it doesn’t take long to find that bond with the other workers.

“If you don’t know everyone’s first names you learn real quick,” he said. “I see most of these guys more than some of my family members.”

Howard Walwrad will have worked at Cargill for more than 45 years when he retires at the end of the season. Since 1969 he’s worked as hoist operator, an above-ground position that controls the machinery that hoists the salt from the mine to different storage bins. From the each of the bins, the salt is transported to a different location. Some goes directly to specific customers, some is bagged and sold in stores and a portion stays in reserves.

Before Walwrad operated the hoist, he worked jackhammer in the mine — doing the job the slag drill does now.

“There’s not too many people that have to do a strenuous job down there,” he said. “Man of my age, I think I could go down there and do any of them, if I knew how to operate the machines. It’s very simple compared to what we used to do.”

MacDonald originally left the mining industry because “guys kept getting killed.” But he said Cargill is very proactive in taking safety precautions and mining in general has become a much safer industry since the establishment of the Mining Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) in 1977.

Wilczynski said MSHA conducts inspections of the mine four times a year and Cargill has developed a very positive working relationship with the organization. According to Wilczynski, there have only been two minor injuries at Cargill this year. He said both were because workers were misusing tools.

“Some [companies] see it as more of a pain,” he said. “I see it as an extra set of trained professional eyes.”

MacDonald said there will always be misconceptions about mining, mostly because the public doesn’t know enough about it.

“Going underground is the same as going underwater in a submarine,” he said. “[You’re] definitely out of the element that human beings are used to, so it carries a certain kind of mystique.”

MacDonald said mining is either something you love or something that’s not for you entirely.

“For those of us who find it fascinating,” he said. “It’s just a place where we can be truly happy.”