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Tribal officials say EPA moving ahead with $243 million Grasse River cleanup plan

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MASSENA — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved an estimated $243 million cleanup plan for the Grasse River, according to St. Regis Mohawk officials who said the EPA notified the tribe, as a stakeholder in the project, of the decision on Thursday.

The record of decision, expected to be announced by the federal agency today, appears to be the answer that Alcoa and north country leaders have awaited. It comes one week after the aluminum manufacturer committed to a $600 million project to modernize its facilities — preserving at least 900 jobs and securing its presence in Massena for decades — in exchange for a supply of low-cost hydroelectric power from the New York Power Authority. The deal was contingent upon the EPA’s approval of the plan to clean up toxins in the river, which Alcoa is obligated to fund.

The EPA would not confirm the decision, but U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who pushed the EPA to approve the plan, said in a statement: “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.”

Elected officials at the municipal, county, state and federal level have urged the EPA to approve the mid-range remediation plan as a way to clean up the river without costing Alcoa so much that the company might choose not to move ahead with the modernization. A more complex proposal supported by the tribe would have cost an estimated $1.3 billion.

Mr. Schumer described the tentative project as a boon to the north country.

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

Massena Town Supervisor Joseph D. Gray said, “The proposed remediation makes the best of a bad situation. It significantly improves the quality of the river at a reasonable cost to Alcoa.”

The plan “is practical and makes sense,” Mr. Gray said. “I consider this good news for the great community.”

Tribal officials, however, say the plan is unacceptable. It calls for partially dredging parts of the river shore and capping a portion of the river bottom with layers of sand, silt, gravel and armor stone. Another other portion of the river bottom will be capped with sand and silt, but no gravel or armor stone. Tribal officials contend that the plan would leave 93 percent of the contaminants in place. They support dredging the river bottom to completely remove the contaminants.

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

The pollution dates to the 1950s, when Alcoa and Reynolds Metals discharged polychlorinated biphenyls into the river, ultimately contaminating portions of the St. Lawrence River and its tributaries.

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 in breast milk that is passed on to infants.

“The EPA has never sufficiently explained or justified the proposed capping remedy,” said Ken Jock, tribal environmental division director, in the release.

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

“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,” Chief Randy Hart said. “If the remedy is not effective Alcoa must go back into the river and fix it.”

Johnson Newspapers writer Tim Fenster contributed to this report.

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