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Speakers link Alcoa remediation plan to modernization project at EPA session

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MASSENA — Most speakers attending a public hearing Wednesday on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Grasse River Remediation Project voiced support for the $243 million plan to clean up the river sediment contaminated by nearly two decades’ worth of industrial pollutants.

The residents, many with ties to Alcoa, said it’s time to get the project under way. Several noted that Alcoa already has spent 15 years and $65 million on researching it.

Waste from Alcoa’s aluminum production and fabrication facilities from the 1950s until the mid-1970s deposited pollutants including polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, on the manufacturer’s property and into the Grasse River. The result is contaminated sediment in the water near the Alcoa West plant and approximately seven miles downstream.

Alcoa is liable for the costs of the cleanup, and many here feel that if the expense is too great, the company will scrap plans for a multi-million-dollar modernization project in Massena. The company’s board of directors currently has a March deadline to decide 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.

Massena residents and officials suggested that Alcoa needs to know the cleanup cost before the March deadline.

“I believe that this is the best plan for those that live on the river, for those that enjoy the river, and also for my community,” Susan D. Kramer of Massena said. “I ask you to please hurry up and proceed.”

The EPA explored 10 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.

Several residents voiced concern about the effect the project will have on Alcoa. The proposed project is estimated at $243 million.

“I hope you take (into consideration) that this is a very depressed economy up here, and we are quite concerned — as a community, as a region — about Alcoa and their longevity,” Massena Town Councilman Albert Nicola said.

While Alcoa is required by law to fully fund the remediation project, the company has yet to commit to the plant modernization.

“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.

Alcoa officials expressed support for EPA’s plan, but maintained that they believe a cheaper, capping-only remedy could be just as effective as EPA’s proposal.

“Based on the finding of the study, Alcoa believes that a capping remedy is effective in maintaining the health of humans and the environment, and provides a viable long-term solution for the river,” said Steven Rombough, manufacturing manager of Alcoa.

EPA officials believe near-shore dredging is needed to remove contaminants in that part of the river, because the steep slope of the riverbed near the shore make it very difficult to cap, Ms. Chang said.

Ms. Chang also said that although the EPA does consider the cost of a remediation it did not choose a plan based on what will benefit Alcoa.

“This (plan) is not recommended with the thought of keeping Alcoa alive,” Ms. Chang said. “I understand what the public sentiments are; however, this (plan) was chosen because it’s technically the best solution as the EPA sees it.”

Massena businessman Real “Frenchie” Coupal noted he has been involved with the community advisory board involved with the Grasse River remediation project for two decaded and urged the EPA to move forward with its $243 million cleanup plan.

“We’ve studied every tree, frog, fish in and on that river, every rock has been turned over. You finally arrived at a plan Alcoa can probably live with. Please, dig a hole, let’s get going. It’s going to be five more years before you even dig a shovel. The new plant will probably be started by then,” said.

A small number of county residents, including Donald Hassig of Colton and Donald Lucas of Massena, expressed concern that the proposal might not go far enough in removing PCBs — a known carcinogen — from the Grasse River.

Charles J. Kader of Rooseveltown contended that Alcoa’s contaminants are to blame for high rates of cancer and illness among residents of the St. Regis Mohawk Indian Reservation. He wants the company to pursue the most thorough remediation option available, regardless of cost.

“Their neighbors, living in Akwesasne, as well as others living downriver of Massena, deserve to see this cleanup done the right way,” Mr. Kader said. “A right to a wrong from an earlier time, but also a way to send a signal to neighbors, friends and allies.”

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