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Salt of the Earth

The Final Act?: American Rock Salt picks up ball

A ray of hope for out of work miners appeared with the May 16, 1996 announcement, "Akzo to keep mine package intact." There was already talk of a 'public corporation' which might step in and take over the mine project. Akzo was receptive and willing to cooperate by keeping the mine package complete, that is, retaining mineral rights and property options in and around Hampton.

Meanwhile, the decision to leave Livingston County did not resolve Akzo of liabilities related to the flooding of the old mine. A number of quiet settlements were being made with owners of damaged property. Households in South Avon, Fowlerville and Groveland were still being supplied with water. The June 6, 1996 Clarion stated that Akzo would be paying the costs of replacing the Little Beards Creek bridge on Rt. 20A.

In December of 1996 The Clarion reported that a local group was looking at reviving the new mine. Realtor Joe Bucci and other investors were reportedly going to make a serious attempt at returning salt mining to Livingston County.

The February 13, 1997 Clarion declared, "Salt Lives!" Akzo had sold its Hampton Corners assets to a local partnership headed by Bucci and attorney Gunther Buerman. The new American Rock Salt limited partnership had been organized to seek investment in the revived mine project. Environmentalists, who were still contesting the validity of the mining permit issued to Akzo, vowed to fight the new project, even though Bucci (a former president of PACE) had promised that the new company would never consider ash disposal and would use 'full pillar' roof support.

The new company, was proposing a slightly scaled back plan: a $130 million project with a 2.5 million ton annual production capacity. The company "in the right place at the right time," became the unexpected beneficiary of a U.S. Justice Department ruling reported April 24, 1997.

Akzo had divested itself of not only its Retsof properties, but all of its North American salt mining properties, which were sold to Cargill.

The situation created anti-trust problems. The federal court had ordered Cargill to sell some of its salt-in-storage so that competition would be revived in the rock salt industry. American turned out to be a willing and ready purchaser of the Retsof pile, and almost overnight was in the business of selling rock salt.

A suit against the mine permit was dismissed in a May 19 State Supreme Court ruling. Alan Knauf, attorney for the environmentalists, expressed unhappiness that "the judge has said they will deal with burial remains if they happen to dig them up."

At a public meeting in Groveland in June, about 200 anxious miners turned out to hear plans for the new mine. However, construction of the mine was still held up as RAGE appealed the court decision validating the mine permit.

A major item of contention continued to be the possible presence of Native American burial remains at the mine site. A group of Native Americans staged a demonstration at Hampton Corners in August. An even larger protest, involving 80-to-100 Native Americans, was reported in September.

An October 17 public hearing explained the intended county tax abatement schedule for the new mine. Mine supporters secured a major victory December 11, when the State Appellate Division Court dismissed the environmentalist appeal. The decision validated the permit and cleared the way for construction to begin-once sufficient private investment and government grants had been secured.

The May 28, 1998 Clarion announced that GE Capital Corp. had committed a $118 million investment into the new mine. Also, archeological excavation studies were underway at Native American archeological sites located along the intended right-of-way for the rail spur. Native American and environmentalist opposition continued to manifest itself in small scale protests, press statements and harassment .

In November of 1998 the new salt mine finally broke ground. Within a few weeks' time a huge army of men and equipment, including many re-employed former miners, descended on the mine site and set to work grading and constructing two shafts which will each descend 1,200 feet into the depths of the earth.

But some of the fears of mine opponents proved to be true. In December of 1998, human bone fragments estimated at 1,500 to 3,000 years old were discovered at the mine site,

A (perhaps) final RAGE petition contesting Mt. Morris town and village rail spur permitting was dismissed in State Supreme Court in February of 1999. However, the discovery of more burial remains in March stirred renewed hostility from Native American quarters, whose leaders are now insisting that the remains stay where they are. Removal is necessary, according to mine officials, because the bones lie in the right-of-way of the rail spur.

An April 25 Native American protest rally at the Brady Farm addressed this sensitive issue, which at present remains unresolved.

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