St. Regis Mohawks are not satisfied with the federal government’s choice to dredge and cap nearly 300 acres of PCB contamination in the Grasse River near Alcoa.
The cleanup at the Grasse River Superfund site will cost the Massena-based aluminum manufacturer $243 million. It will take four years to complete the in-river work following a two-year design phase.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determined the best way to mitigate the problems along a 7.2-mile stretch of the river is to remove 59 acres of sediment through dredging and cover another 225 acres with layers of clean sand, silt, gravel and anchor stone.
But that method leaves about 93 percent of the contaminated sediment in place.
Laurie Marr, communications and public-affairs manager for Alcoa’s Massena Operations, said the company had not seen the EPA’s Record of Decision yet and would comment once it had been received.
In the meantime, the Mohawks find the EPA’s decision troubling.
“I’m disappointed that the EPA would choose such a poor remedy that isn’t a permanent solution,” Tribal Council Chief Ron LaFrance said in a news release.
“Their mission has been compromised so industrial-pollution perpetrators can continue to violate the environment with little or no conscience. What’s even sadder is that jobs won out over the health of the people — jobs that never benefited our community anyway.”
Tribal Environmental Division Director Ken Jock said “the EPA has never sufficiently explained or justified the proposed capping remedy.”
‘CAN’T REMOVE ALL’
The tribe favored complete removal of the contamination.
But a fact sheet explaining the Grasse River project on the EPA website states that, even if the main-channel sediment containing PCBs were removed, high concentrations would remain on the bedrock, glacial till and marine clay on the river bottom no matter what type of dredging equipment was used.
And the material would still have to be capped with 12 inches of sand, top soil and gravel and stone.
The EPA said even that option “would not return the Grasse River to pristine conditions” and would mean removing and properly disposing of 1.5 million cubic yards, or 1 million tons, of contaminated sediment, which would take three times as long to complete.
Alcoa, Reynolds Metals and General Motors had discharged pollutants in the St. Lawrence River and its tributaries since the 1950s, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a known carcinogen.
On March 27, a $20 million settlement was reached that requires Alcoa and Reynolds Metals Company to pay $18.5 million in damages for releasing hazardous material into the St. Lawrence.
That money is in addition to a $1.8 million settlement as part of the 2011 General Motors bankruptcy action.
It came on the heels of Aloca’s announcement that it will invest $52 million in modernization and upgrades at its Massena operations.
Congressman Bill Owens (D-Plattsburgh) hailed the remediation project.
“Finalizing a plan to clean up the Grasse River is another positive step forward for Alcoa, for workers and labor at the facility and for their families in the community,” he said.
As well, he said, the announcement “eliminates a roadblock that has created uncertainty around Alcoa’s modernization, and I applaud this progress.”
A study in the 1970s by the National Institute of Environmental Health determined the concentration of PCBs in the breast milk of young Mohawk mothers was being transferred to their babies, and a Health Department study between 1986 and 1992 found Mohawk mothers had twice the level of PCB contamination in breast milk than Caucasian mothers.
After the fish ban was put in place in 1990, subsequent testing revealed no significant difference between the PCB levels in Mohawk mothers’ milk and that of Caucasian mothers.
Another study, in the 1980s, determined the level of PCBs found in snapping turtles, frogs and fish on the reservation at Akwesasne was so high that the animals would qualify as hazardous waste.
‘STILL OUR LAND’
Some Mohawk leaders remain skeptical of the EPA’s decision.
“The EPA has a record of poor stewardship in protecting our environment with the General Motor’s partial cleanup, the Reynolds partial cleanup and now with the Alcoa partial cleanup,” Tribal Council Chief Paul Thompson said.
“That is still our land, and the EPA should be using our standards for cleanup, not what the Alcoa scientists say should be done.”
Chief Randy Hart added that the tribe will monitor the work, but he wants the EPA to set aside funds to pay for “perpetual monitoring and maintenance” of the site.
“If the remedy is not effective, Alcoa must go back into the river and fix it,” he said.
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