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EPA could release final Grasse River plan within next three months

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MASSENA - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will take into account what Massena and Akwesasne residents have said of the proposed Grasse River Remediation Project as the federal agency moves forward with finalizing its cleanup plan.

Public hearings were held both in Massena and Akwesasne last week in order to gauge reaction to the EPA’s plan to remove carcinogenic PCBs from the Grasse River.

The public comment period will end Nov. 29, after which the EPA will evaluate public comment and craft the Record of Decision, a document that outlines the EPA’s reasoning for its decision, takes public concerns into consideration and provides responses to those concerns. The decision will be made by Judith A. Enck, administrator for Region 2 of the EPA.

Grasse River Remediation Project Manager Young S. Chang expects a decision to be made within one to three months, depending on the plan the EPA chooses.

Once the plan is chosen, Alcoa will begin pre-design investigative work, which is expected to last two to three years, and will include assessing habitat conditions of the river, finalizing the design, and evaluating and selecting contractors for the work, according to Laurie Marr, communications and public affairs manager for Alcoa.

Ms. Marr could not provide specifics on the type or time-table for the pre-design investigative work, because the EPA has yet to make a decision.

“At this point the company has to see what the final remedy is going to be,” she said.

Details such as the chosen method for dredging, and the technique for capturing contaminants released during dredging, will be ironed out during the pre-design phase, Ms. Chang said.

In the event the EPA chooses a plan outside of the 10 initial proposed cleanup options, the project would then move back a step as EPA officials would hold another public comment period for the new plan.

As for the proposed plan, most of the community was either in support of the EPA’s recommendation for a $243 million cleanup plan or called for a more thorough, costly and time-consuming remediation plan, Ms. Chang said.

“I can’t imagine us going with anything less than (the proposed plan),” she said. “Most of the comment was either in support of (the proposed plan) or called for more dredging, which you’d get with (the other) alternatives.”

At a public hearing in Massena, most residents voiced support for the EPA’s plan, but the next night in Akwesasne EPA officials were told the final plan should call for dredging in the main channel of the river.

The Massena Town Board recently passed a resolution last week supporting a remediation plan that “strikes a balance” between environmental responsibility and safeguarding the economic future of the area, Massena Town Supervisor Joseph D. Gray said.

Mr. Gray believes the EPA’s proposed plan does just that.

“We support an environmentally responsible cleanup that also considers the financial burden on Alcoa - that allows Alcoa to remain a profitable company in the area,” Mr. Gray said. Massena officials have voiced concern if the cost of the cleanup project is too high hopes for a more than $600 million modernization project at Alcoa will be squashed, and the plant could eventually close its doors in Massena.

“We’re concerned that any additional cost would be difficult for Alcoa to stomach and still (be able to) move ahead with the modernization of the Massena plant,” Mr. Gray.

Meanwhile, residents who attended the public hearing in Akwesasne voiced support for a more thorough cleanup plan, which would require significantly more money and time.

“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.”

St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Government officials have voiced support for a remediation plan that includes some additional dredging in the main channel of the river. However, many who spoke at the public hearing voiced support for a full dredging of the river - a plan with a pricetag of $1.3 billion and a construction period of 18 years.

Charles J. Kader, clerk of the men’s council of the People of the Way of the Longhouse, said Akwesasne residents will hold a number of gatherings to unite their community toward advocating for a thorough cleanup of the Grasse River.

EPA officials have said Alcoa released wastes from its aluminum production and fabrication facilities, including polychlorinated biphenyls once viewed as a tool for worker safety 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, which under the proposed plan are estimated at $243 million but could end up more or less than that figure, Ms. Chang said.

The EPA explored 10 different cleanup alternatives, ranging from a three-year, $114 million option to an 18-year, $1.3 billion option, Ms. 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.

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