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EPA, SRMT officials discuss Grasse River remediation plan


AKWESASNE - Wary St. Regis Mohawk Tribal officials remain unconvinced that the plan chosen to remediate the Grasse River will do enough to remove industrial contaminants that they say have significantly damaged the health and way of life of many area Mohawks.

Tribal officials held a meeting Tuesday with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials to discuss the EPA’s chosen plan to remediate a river contaminated with decades worth of industrial pollutants released by Alcoa in the 1950s and 1970s. The aluminum manufacturer is responsible for the cost of the approximately $245 million cleanup plan.

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.

The EPA explored 10 different clean-up 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.

SRMT Chief Ron LaFrance, Jr. raised concern over the lingering presence of PCBs in the river, and expressed skepticism with the EPA’s promise that the caps should hold up, saying it can be very difficult to predict nature during a time of climate change and unusual weather events, such as Hurricane Sandy.

“You’re going to put a cap over something that we feel shouldn’t be there in the first place,” Mr. LaFrance said. “With global warming, we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future with this river.”

Mr. LaFrance and other tribal officials advocated for a plan that would include dredging along the main channel to remove sediments contaminated with PCBs, toxic industrial chemicals believed to cause cancer.

Walter Mugdan, director of the EPA’s emergency and remedial response division, said the loose rock and uneven terrain of the main channel riverbed make dredging very difficult, and that even if the river were fully dredged, a capping would be needed to isolate contaminants that could not be removed.

He added that they’d found higher PCB levels in the sediment closest to the bedrock, as opposed to more top-lying sediment. Therefore, if main channel dredging were done, the capping would be placed over sediment with higher levels of contamination than if a cap were put in place without main channel dredging.

“(By dredging more sediment) you will get to mud that’s got higher levels of contamination, so you’ll have to cap it anyway,” Mr. Mugdan said. “One concern we have is that should the cap fail, I and our colleagues feel it is worse if the cap fails over more highly contaminated sediments.”

Ken Jock, director of the tribe’s Environment Division, said that Alcoa hasn’t identified the best solutions to removing contaminated sediment during the company’s clean-up research efforts, which lasted 15 years and cost $65 million.

Mr. Jock said the tests focused on hydraulic dredging, which proved ineffective due to the bedrock in the main channel, and he believes mechanical dredging would be successful in removing contaminants.

Mr. Jock and others raised concern about the issue of ice scouring, which ruined a test capping placed in the river in 2003. The EPA has chosen the placement of an armor capping as a way to protect the cap from ice scouring, but Mr. Jock is not convinced a lay of stone and gravel will protect the contaminated sediments from build-ups of ice during the wintertime.

Mr. LaFrance pointed out the armor capping would be placed in the portion of the river near Massena, and asked why that stronger, thicker capping wouldn’t be placed over contaminated sediment closer to Akwesasne.

Mr. Mugdan said the EPA had found no need for an armor capping in that portion of the river, saying their tests had not found any risk of ice-scouring occurring there. He believes more stone and gravel along the riverbed would be counterproductive to their efforts to regenerate life along the riverbed.

Mr. Mugdan pointed out the EPA will continue to monitor the site to ensure the cap remains in place. “If at any time we decide the clean-up isn’t sufficient, we can direct (Alcoa) to do more work,” he said.

However, that didn’t alleviate the concerns of Mr. LaFrance, who feels the people of Akwesasne have suffered enough because of those contaminants.

He pointed out that the contaminants released by Alcoa resulted in an advisory by the New York state Department of Health in the 1980s, warning residents not to consume fish from the Grasse River.

This caused significant health affects on the Akwesasne people, both from exposure to the PCBs and from dietary changes, as the people were forced to switch from natural foods such as freshly caught fish, to highly processed store-bought foods, according to Mr. LaFrance.

“Anything that leaves that site can’t be beared. We’ve gone through too much,” Mr. LaFrance said.

Mr. Mugdan said these caps have been proven effective, and the EPA’s Record of Decision states that the chosen remediation plan is “specifically designed to protect the Mohawk community.”

The remediation plan will begin with two years of soil testing and engineer work to determine the most effective methods for capping, dredging and removing contaminated sediment near the shoreline, Mr. Mugdan said. He estimated work itself will last four to five years.

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