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Akwesasne residents voice support for more dredging in Grasse River remediation

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AKWESASNE - Each of the nearly dozen speakers attending a public hearing Thursday night in Akwesasne on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Grasse River Remediation Project rejected the federal agency’s $243 million project to clean up the river sediment contaminated by two decades worth of industrial pollutants.

Akwesasne residents who spoke at the hearing stated they want to see a remediation plan that incorporates more dredging to remove contaminated sediment.

EPA officials have noted Alcoa released wastes from its aluminum production and fabrication facilities, including polychlorinated biphenyls and other industrial pollutants, from the 1950s until the mid-1970s onto the facility’s property and into the Grasse River.

Those actions have resulted in contaminated sediments in the waters near the Alcoa West plant and approximately seven miles downstream. Alcoa is liable for the costs of the cleanup.

Akwesasne residents and officials expressed that they want to see all toxic contaminants removed from the river - to provide a healthy environment for the next generation - no matter what the cost or time-frame.

“The EPA is obligated to make those responsible pay for the best remedy,” said Alma Ransom, a former St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council chief. “There’s no guarantee the capping will stay in place. We need more dredging and a thorough cleaning.”

The EPA explored 10 different cleanup alternatives, ranging from a three-year, $114 million option to an 18-year, $1.3 billion option, EPA Remedial Project Manager Young S. Chang said.

The proposed plan recommends dredging approximately 109,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment in areas close to the shore. In the river’s center, approximately 225 acres of sediment would be capped with clean sand and gravel to isolate the contamination. Another 59 acres would receive an additional “armored cap” of large rocks to further isolate that area’s contamination.

Mohawk Council of Akwesasne Chief Brian David voiced support for a plan which includes additional dredging in high-contaminant areas, called “hot-spots,” in the main channel, along with near-shore dredging and capping.

Ms. Chang has said that these hot-spots do not exist and the bedrock and uneven terrain of the main channel riverbed make dredging very difficult.

“Even if you had all the money in the world and you fully dredged it, you’re not going to be able to capture all the contaminants at this site,” Ms. Chang said. “It’s not achievable and that’s because of the condition we have here in the main channel.”

Ms. Chang also said that even if the river were fully dredged, a capping would be needed to isolate contaminants that could not be removed.

Still, many Akwesasne residents voiced support for the full-dredging option, a plan that would require more than $1 billion and 18 years of work to complete.

Many who spoke touched on the deep wounds that industrial pollution, and the Department of Health’s warning to not eat fish from the Grasse River has left on the community. The warning, issued in the 1980s, was aimed to prevent residents from consuming carcinogenic PCBs present in the bodies of Grasse River fish.

Many residents touched on the high rates of cancer among Akwesasne residents and feelings of bitterness toward the corporations and industries they said caused it.

“I saw the anger, I saw the pain, and I saw the hurt that this community has endured,” Barbara Tarbell said. “When our fishermen had the realization that they could not feed their own children, when our mothers were scared to feed their own babies, this community has been denied the ability to provide for our families.”

Others noted how the contamination has limited residents’ way of life.

“I’ve paddled every river between Saranac Lake and Old Forge, and I find it very disappointing that I can’t paddle in my own backyard,” Mary F. Terrance said.

Many residents said the remedy option should be chosen regardless of what it costs Alcoa.

During a public hearing Wednesday, some Massena residents and officials expressed concern that if the remediation costs are too high, Alcoa will scrap plans on the table for a multi-million modernization project in Massena. The company’s board of directors currently has a March 2013 deadline to determine the fate of the modernization plan.

In order to continue receiving low-cost hydro power from the New York Power Authority, Alcoa must invest at least $600 million in the modernized plant.

Some fear that without low-cost hydro power, Alcoa might decide to close down its Massena operations.

“Any solution that does not result in a modernized Alcoa (plant) is no solution - not for us,” said Michael Almasian, executive director of the Business Development Corporation for a Greater Massena.

Ms. Tarbell believes the health and future of the Akwesasne people should not be dependent on the future of Alcoa in the area.

“The remedy should be delayed until Alcoa has publicly announced their commitment to this area, and that could be as little as eight months,” she said.

Alcoa officials have stated the company is willing to commit to the EPA’s proposal, but maintains that a cheaper, capping-only remedy would be just as effective.

“Alcoa is prepared to move ahead with the EPA’s proposed remedy even though it’s not necessarily what we would have chosen,” said Kevin L. McKnight, director of environmental health, safety and sustainability for Alcoa. “We respect the near-shore dredging but we think capping is effective near the shore.”

Mr. McKnight added the company believes that dredging the main channel is an ineffective means to remove contaminants in the soil.

Many residents who support the full-dredging option acknowledge that such a plan would require decades to remove the contaminants, but maintain that they want the most thorough clean-up option for their grandchildren.

“I may never be able to eat any fish from the Grasse River in my lifetime,” Ms. Tarbell said. “But the EPA has the opportunity to make sure that my children, and my grandchildren can.”

The public comment period on the EPA’s proposed Grasse River Remediation Project will end Nov. 29. After that deadline has passed, and public comment has been considered, the federal agency will choose what remediation option to move ahead with.

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