Mohawks: Grasse River clean-up is “devastating failure”

A sign on the shore of the Grasse River in 2015.
A sign on the shore of the Grasse River in 2015.(Source: WWNY)
Published: Aug. 5, 2022 at 3:03 PM EDT
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AKWESASNE (WWNY) - A deal which saved Alcoa more than a billion dollars is a “devastating failure” when it comes to cleaning up the Grasse River.

That’s according to the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council, in a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In 2013, at the urging of U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, the EPA reached a deal with Alcoa - it approved a $243 million clean-up of the Grasse River, which was and is contaminated with PCBs, chemicals which cause cancer.

Several industries are believed to have contaminated the Grasse River over the decades.

The EPA had been considering an option which would have forced Alcoa to spend $1.3 billion, so the $243 million was a bargain.

At the time, Senator Schumer hailed the bargain priced clean-up as “a shot in the arm for the environment and the economy that will put many people to work in the cleanup efforts,” according to a Watertown TImes story from April, 2013.

The EPA announcement came just after Alcoa “committed” to $600 million at its Massena facility, and at least 900 jobs.

As of 2019, Alcoa and its spin-off in Massena, Arconic, employed a total of about 600 people. After 2013, state officials continued to make concessions to the company to keep it - and jobs - in Massena.

But from the start, the Mohawk Tribal Council warned the $243 million clean-up wouldn’t work.

Essentially, what the EPA agreed to was a plan to clean up contaminated material near the shore of the river, and “cap” the bottom of the river.

Work was finished last October, but tribal officials say an ice jam last winter tore apart a portion of the cap system.

“We told them (the EPA) that wasn’t sufficient. We told them the ice has a life of its own,” Tribal Council Chief Ron LaFrance told 7 News.

“It doesn’t go where we want it to go. It goes wherever it feels like it has to go.”

PCBS in concentrations as high as 900 to 1,500 parts per million (PPM) were detected in areas that were previously not exposed, according to the Tribal Council.

“These are new PCB-concentrations and are extremely harmful, exceeding the limit of 500 ppm and posing a substantial threat to human health and the environment,” said Tribal Chief Beverly Cook in a statement.

An unknown amount of the PCBs made their way to the St. Lawrence River, said St. Regis Mohawk Tribe Environment Division Director Tony David.

The tribe has long advocated for dredging the river and removing contaminating material, rather than covering it and leaving it in place. But the officials and politicians the tribe dealt with saw it differently.

“They were, like, ‘If we push for more of a clean-up, then Alcoa’s gonna leave,” LaFrance said.

“I know this - I haven’t eaten fish out of the river since 1981, and I will probably die never eating another piece of fish out of our rivers, because of what industry was allowed to do.”

Other comments:

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) says it has “serious concerns” about the failure of the cap.

“New York State will continue to urge EPA and Arconic to follow the science before repairing the cap to ensure a full and effective cleanup that prevents exposure to contamination and is protective of public health and the environment,” the DEC said in an emailed statement.

Arconic says very little of the capped area was damaged.

“The area damaged was less than 2% of the total area capped as part of the remedial action and the area where damage to sediments below the cap was observed was less than 0.5% of the total cap area,” a company spokesperson said in an emailed response.

“Arconic started monitoring the ice jam event promptly once it was detected and mobilized a crew on April 1 to evaluate the situation as soon as it was safe to do so.

“Water quality monitoring has been conducted since the ice jam event and the results to date have been at or below historic levels. Since the ice jam event occurred, Arconic has been working through the existing process with EPA to address the issue and will continue to do so,” according to the Arconic spokesperson.

7 News has reached out to Senator Schumer, and the EPA. We’ll update this story as we get their comments.

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