The Environmental Protection Agency has made official what we reported earlier this morning. The agency released a final plan for cleaning up PCB-contaminated sediment Alcoa released into the Grasse River until the chemical was banned in the 1970s. It adopts a much less expensive method for cleaning up most of the contamination – capping and containment instead of dredging and removal.
The official decision comes just days after Senator Chuck Schumer, one of the most powerful Democrats in Washington, employed no small amount of bluster during a visit to Massena to pressure the EPA into doing what it just did today.
So was there a cause-and-effect? Let’s take a step back.
Alcoa said last week it would invest $600 million in its two plants in Massena and guarantee 900 jobs (actually about 200 fewer than there are currently!) for the next 30 years, in exchange for 480 megawatts of cheap hydropower.
But there was a catch. The deal would only stand if the EPA chose the cheaper cap-and-contain clean-up plan for the Grasse River. As NCPR’s Julie Grant reported, Schumer did not mince words:
Schumer says the company has limits on the amount it will invest in Massena and the Grasse River. Alcoa told him:
“We want to invest in this plant and upgrade it. But we only have a certain amount of money. And we have to put all of the money into the cleanup of the river, and doing the environmental cleanup, we don’t have enough money to invest in the plant.”
Schumer says the EPA has proposed one plan that would cost $245 million, and Alcoa has agreed to that.
“Today, I am urging the EPA to issue that Record of Decision. To support their plan, and get it done fast. I’d like them to get it done in April. Today is April first. And I’m not fooling.”
In other words, there is a balance between economic development and environmental cleanup, or as Schumer said, “you don’t want a decision where you say the environment is the only thing taken into account.”
Let’s not forget here that Alcoa notched $23.7 billion in sales last year and operates in 30 countries. Alcoa is really big.
The St. Regis Mohawks, who live at the downriver end of the Grasse River and whose cultural reality has been devastated and reshaped by PCB contamination, have blasted the EPA, saying it’s putting jobs over the long-term health of the river and the people who rely on it. As tribal chief Paul Thompson said in a press 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. 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.
One of the most recognized native environmental justice activists in the country, Katsi Cook, said in a statement sent to NCPR:
I am deeply concerned that Sen. Schumer’s call for EPA’s immediate action on a ‘less expensive’ Grasse River remediation focuses only on Alcoa’s modernization plan. We as a community must acknowledge the very real human health risks of PCBs and other toxic industrial chemicals. Those pollutants wreak havoc on multiple human systems. They never leave our bodies and will be passed on to future generations. That’s a terrible expense we can’t afford and should no longer tolerate.
The EPA has been studying exactly how to clean up the Grasse River for more than a decade. In its record of decision released today, the agency directly answers the question the tribe and other environmentalists are asking: why isn’t the main channel of the river being dredged of PCBs and that sediment being trucked away forever? The EPA basically says it wouldn’t work:
Although dredging of the main channel would remove additional PCB mass from the river, PCBs at high concentrations would nevertheless remain in the main channel after dredging. Most of the highly contaminated sediment in the main channel is present over bottom materials such as bedrock, glacial till, and/or marine clay, which prevent a dredge from effectively removing all of the contamination. As a result, and regardless of the type of equipment used for dredging, residual sediments with high PCB concentrations would remain behind after dredging and would still require either armored capping or main channel capping.
The EPA also says it has designed an armored cap to contain the contaminants that would withstand an ice jam. In 2003, an ice jam scoured a trial cap put in place in the Grasse.
So the EPA chose the $245 million plan that will take 6 years, instead of the estimated $1.3 billion plan that the EPA says could take three times as long – and may not even achieve its goals.
Was the EPA feeling pressure from Alcoa and North Country lawmakers to approve the cheaper plan? That’s for you to decide.
But one thing that I take away is that the Mohawks and the EPA think fundamentally differently about these cleanups. The EPA says its remedies and monitoring will happen “in perpetuity”.
But the Mohawks are looking way further into the future than a government agency’s notion of “perpetuity”. Mohawks fully expect to outlast the EPA and anyone else on that land. They were there before Europeans arrived, and they believe they’ll remain there when others move on. As the now-famous phrase goes, they’re thinking seven generations into the future, probably further than that.
And they want the chemicals to be gone, not covered up.