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Tribe says EPA going with $243 million clean-up plan for Grasse River

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MASSENA - St. Regis Mohawk Tribal officials say they held a conference call with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday in which they were told that the EPA has opted to move ahead with a clean-up plan for the Grasse River that will cost an estimated $243 million.

Tribal officials say the EPA is scheduled to release their Record of Decision on Friday, but EPA officials declined to confirm whether that will happen.

If accurate, the announcement would come one week after Alcoa announced that would invest $600 million to modernize its facilities - a requirement for the aluminum manufacturer to continue receiving low-cost hydropower - on the condition that the EPA move ahead with its proposed remedy for the Grasse River, which Alcoa would have to fully fund.

Tribal officials said that plan, which they refer to as “Remedial Option number six,” was unacceptable. It calls for partially dredging the parts of the river shore and capping a portion of the river bottom with layers of sand, silt, gravel and armor stone. The other portion of the river bottom will be capped with sand and silt, but no gravel or armor stone. That plan, tribal officials said, would leave 93 percent of the contaminants in place.

“I’m disappointed that the EPA would choose such a poor remedy that isn’t a permanent solution. 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 Chief Ron LaFrance said in the release.

Elected officials at the municipal, county, state and federal level have weighed in on the EPA’s decision, urging the federal agency to move ahead on its proposed remediation plan as a way to clean up the river without costing Alcoa so much that the company may choose not to move ahead on its modernization.

Among them was U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, who had visited Alcoa on Monday to urge the EPA to act on the proposed remediation plan. He released a statement Thursday evening saying that the news, if correct, would be a “shot in the arm” for the north country.

“While it’s not official yet, this EPA decision is wonderful news for the North Country on two fronts: it will clean up the Grasse River and allow Alcoa the flexibility and certainty it needs to retain over 900 jobs and expand its operations at the East Plant, which we believe will inevitably create even more jobs. This is one of the best things to happen to the region and St. Lawrence County in a very long time and I am very proud that we have been a part of it from the beginning to end,” Sen. Schumer said.

“The $243 million plan will also be a shot in the arm for the environment and its economy, that will put many people to work in the cleanup efforts,” he said.

“The proposed remediation makes the best of a bad situation,” Massena Town Supervisor Joseph D. Gray said. “It significantly improves the quality of the river at a reasonable cost to Alcoa. (The plan) is practical and makes sense. I consider this good news for the great community.”

But tribal officials said they’re concerned that the plan will not address the problems with the river, which they said began in the 1950s when Alcoa and Reynolds Metal discharged pollutants into the river system, ultimately contaminating portions of the St. Lawrence River and its tributaries.

They said the discharge of PCBs is “one of the chief concerns because they are so persistent, are cancer-causing and take a very long time to break down in the environment.”

The PCBs, tribal officials said, have found their way into the food chain by infiltrating river sediments.They then contaminate smaller organisms which are eaten by larger and larger predators, and eventually are consumed by humans. They said research has shown that PCBs are then found in human tissue and breast milk which is then passed on to infants.

“The EPA has never sufficiently explained or justified the proposed capping remedy,” Tribal Environmental Division Director Ken Jock said in the release.

“The EPA has a record of poor stewardship in protecting our environment, with the General Motor’s partial clean-up, the Reynolds partial clean-up and now with the Alcoa partial clean-up,” Tribal Chief Paul Thompson said.“That is still our land and the EPA should be using our standards for clean-up, not what the Alcoa scientists say should be done.”

Tribal officials say the Tribal Council supports “Remedial Option Number 10,” which called for dredging of the river bottom to completely remove the contaminants.

“We will continue to monitor the remedy and we ask EPA to require a perpetual monitoring and maintenance fund be set up just for the Grasse River remedy,” Tribal Chief Randy Hart said. “If the remedy is not effective Alcoa must go back into the river and fix it.”

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