Did the EPA put jobs ahead of the environment?

Sen. Schumer with Alcoa workers in Massena Monday. Photo: Julie Grant

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.

Tags: , , , , , ,

15 Comments on “Did the EPA put jobs ahead of the environment?”

Leave a Comment
  1. Tehnoiehate says:

    Congratulations Massena, Alcoa, and Schumer:

    You sold tomorrow to get through today. When Alcoa does eventually leave Massena (it will) and this “remedy” fails due to ice scouring or one of the many other reasons, and when Sen. Charles Schumer is no longer wheeling and dealing; the only thing left will be the PCBs. That will become the North Country’s legacy. Massena will be jobless and unable to harvest the natural bounty that once was.

    Everyone was so worried about job rates in Massena that they overlooked the fact that the remedial work would bring in jobs of its own, along with job training opportunities. Everyone jumped on the quicker remedial option so the jobs created for this current project will not be around as long as say the remedial option that lasts twice as long.

    The Mohawks are left hinging their future cultural restoration work on a 2-mile armor cap followed by a 5-mile sediment cap. This is their only shot, if the cap fails there are no “do overs.” They have no choice but to stay since this is the only piece of land that was given to them while most other people are able to pack up and move on to greener (hopefully less polluted) pastures.

    Sad to say but I am looking to the day when I can escape to start a family in better place.


  2. Mervel says:

    How far upstream is the Grass river polluted?

  3. Ken Hall says:

    I was so incensed I was frothing at the mouth whilst bellowing at the radio when I heard this story, on NCPR, about ALCO, the EPA and Senator Schumer colluding to to once again put the screws to the Native Americans. This dastardly deal reminds me of the treatment afforded the Native Americans by the European invaders during the first 400+ years of our occupation when our forefathers appropriated 95-98% of their lands and killed 97% of those whose lands we were taking. So once again we are emulating our European ancestors by grabbing for the “gold” to the detriment of those who were here first. 900 jobs for ???; at the cost of what suffering for Native Americans? Yes sir Americans are exceptional; exceptionally greedy and short sighted!

  4. JDM says:

    Maybe if “the EPA”, whoever that is, used parts-per-million in their proposal instead of $’s, it would make a stronger case.

    Unfortunately, “the EPA”, whoever that is, doesn’t have a clue, so they lost the argument.

    Here’s “the EPA”, whoever that is, argument:

    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.

    Let’s see.

    “The EPA”, whoever that is, says that the $1.3 billion plan could take three times (that’s 3x 6 years = 18 years), and may not work, even then.

    “The EPA”, whoever that is, doesn’t have a clue to its own plan, apparently.

  5. SESZOO says:

    Sold out for money , If you have enough money to spread around I guess it’s alright to destroy a river, leave cancer causeing PCBs in there and then propose a half a plan to just cover the mess up, Yes we’ll leave it for our grandchildren to clean up . Just tell the people we’ll keep some jobs here to make us more money, How many New Permanent Jobs are we actually going to see ? How many more cases of cancer from this contamination in the next 50 yrs.? Welcome to April so much for Earth Day and month. Sold Out for Money and so called jobs.

  6. Ken Hall says:

    The definitive conclusion that PCB oil dumping into the local rivers, by the manufacturing interests, in and around Massena was causing genetic disruptions to animals and humans on the Akwesasne Nation was made back in the early 80’s. Any guesses as to why it has taken over 30 years to arrive at a plan which is ACCEPTABLE to ALCOA?

    Is is it not interesting that it is US Federal Government policy to NOT negotiate with “terrorists”; however, if ALCOA management throws out a “terrorist” style demand such as “the EPA must select the cheaper, less likely to be potentially effective, clean up plan for the rivers they dumped PCB oil into, for what 50-75 years?, or we (ALCOA) will take our 900 jobs and leave town, and that additionally you (tax payers) must continue to pay to subsidize a 1/2 gigawatt of electrical power for us (ALCOA)”. At this point we (the US Government) allow NY’s US Senator to negotiate in cooperation with those (ALCOA) making the “terrorist” style demands in an antagonistic nature with another US Agency (EPA) whose very purpose of existence is to provide protection against and restitution of, environmental fouling at the hands of businesses, for us (US citizens).

    I stand by my previous statement “Yes sir Americans are exceptional; exceptionally greedy and short sighted!”, with an added caveat this will be a “hell-of-a-deal” for all business interests to use as a precedence in litigation’s with which they are/will be involved with the EPA.

  7. andrea bellinger says:

    Here Here to everyone above. The sound bite by Charles Schumer (who I saw as a champion of little people’s interests during the Bush years) also caused me to gnash my teeth. Yes, he says we must do a “cleanup” because its the “law”, not because it is important to the community’s heath in the future.
    And thank you David for the 200 less jobs than currently in place. Screwed again. There is a reason St. Lawrence County has such a high incidence of cancer. What to do, What to do?

  8. mervel says:

    I share the basic sentiments above, however this is the cost of poverty, 900 good paying jobs in a poverty stricken area is HUGE, it is as much of a payroll as some of our colleges, it is like starting a whole new college with better pay actually for many of these jobs. Many natives will benefit from these jobs. It is very disappointing however that they did not strike a harder deal with Alcoa on the cleanup they should have made them dredge. A comparison would be GE and and the Hudson. When it came to downstate dandies living along the Hudson then the state was quite severe making GE dredge and clean up the whole area, which was larger than the area that needs to be removed on the Grass river. But when it came to natives and whites living along the grass river way up in upstate, well the demands to the Corporation are different.

    There are not good answers. Passing up 900 jobs in a poor area is also a moral issue.

  9. Terence says:


  10. StevenS says:

    The headline could read “Did the APA put jobs ahead of the Environment?” and apply it to the ACR devleopment in Tupper Lake. The one big difference is that Alcoa acutally has money and will probably follow through with the plan. The ACR has no money and in my estimation will never come close to their proposed pie in the sky resort.

  11. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a long and dark
    history of placing corporate profitability above the protection of the
    environment and the public health. In the case of the remediation of
    the GM Powertrain Superfund site, EPA opted for leaving a tremendous
    quantity of industrial contaminants on the site. The Toxic Mound is
    an illegal industrial landfill that remains on this site. The
    landfill has no liner. It is immediately adjacent to the lands of
    Akwesasne. It is uphill from waters that lie on the Akwesasne
    Reserve. The Toxic Mound is continuing to poison Akwesasne. In the
    remediation of the former Reynolds Metals site, EPA allowed Reynolds
    Metals to place PCB contaminated materials in a landfill that has a
    clay bottom. This is not the type of material that is required as a
    liner for hazardous materials. EPA broke the rules to give Reynolds
    Metals a low cost way to deal with the contaminated materials from its
    site. In the case of the EPA’s dioxin reassessment, EPA has taken the
    position that the US food supply is safe. This is a position that is
    pleasing to corporations that have dioxin clean-up liabilities and to
    corporations in the foods sector of the economy. The food supply is
    not safe. The animal fat foods of the mainstream food supply contain
    levels of dioxins that impose more than acceptable risks for
    developing diseases and disorders including: cancer, heart disease,
    type 2 diabetes, autoimmune diseases, cognitive impairments, immune
    system dysfunctions, reproductive impairments and behavioral
    disorders. EPA is lying to the people to please the corporations.
    EPA corruption is causing people to receive avoidable exposures to
    industrial contaminants. EPA deception is causing people to get sick
    and die. This is very, very wrong.

    The EPA has no honor. Cancer Action NY will persevere in bringing
    out the Truth about the corrupt EPA. I plan to escalate my free
    speech endeavors to include many more venues. Upcoming free speech
    performances focusing on EPA corruption will take place at the
    following venues: Claxton Hepburn Hospital, Canton-Potsdam Hospital,
    Lisbon Central School, Colton-Pierrepont Central School, Massena
    Central School, area drug stores, and area fast food restaurants.
    Viva the Environmental Protection Revolution!

    Cancer Action NY’s 4/8/13 letter of protest to EPA follows.



    Judith Enck, Regional Administrator
    US Environmental Protection Agency
    Region 2
    New York, NY USA
    Transmitted by electronic mail

    Dear Ms. Enck,

    I am aware of the publication of the Record of Decision on the Grasse
    River Clean-Up. It is my understanding that the Environmental
    Protection Agency (EPA) has selected as its preferred strategy for
    remediation of the Grasse River Superfund Site a strategy that entails
    leaving all contaminated material in the main channel of the river and
    placing capping materials on this contaminated river bottom. I am
    very displeased to learn of this development. When I spoke with
    Region 2 EPA personnel on November 15, 2012 at the community outreach
    session held by that agency, I argued that the presence of bedrock
    below the contaminated sediments was not reason for leaving all of the
    contaminated sediments in place. All contaminated sediments that
    could be removed by dredging down to bedrock should be removed. Once
    dredging down to bedrock has be accomplished, then any remaining
    contamination should be capped. This strategy would result in the
    most full clean-up that was technologically possible. This strategy
    would best protect the health of the river and the people of the Town
    of Massena and the Akwesasne Reserve.

    The people of the Town of Massena and the Akwesasne Reserve have
    suffered much damages to health as a result of exposures to PCBs. The
    PCBs that were disposed of by ALCOA, the former Reynolds Metals and
    General Motors (GM), lay in the sediments and soils of the St.
    Lawrence River valley for many decades before any clean-up was
    attempted. During all of that period, PCBs were evaporating out of
    the contaminated soils and sediments. These PCBs entered the outdoor
    atmosphere and were inhaled by those who resided in the vicinity of
    the contaminated sites. David O. Carpenter, MD has published research
    that found excess levels of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes
    in populations that resided within three miles of sites contaminated
    with persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Dr. Carpenter attributes
    these excess disease rates to respiratory exposures to POPs that had
    evaporated and entered the outdoor atmosphere.

    Those who have received excess exposures to POPs, in this case PCBs
    should be given special consideration when matters of public health
    protection arise. The remediation of the Grasse River is an
    opportunity to protect the environment and the public health. Grasse
    River remediation should be conducted as described above so as to
    minimize the ongoing exposures of the people of the Town of Massena
    and the Akwesase Reserve to PCBs. Best possible clean-up of the
    Grasse River is best for public health. The EPA has placed the short
    term financial interests of ALCOA above environmental protection and
    public health protection by opting for a remediation strategy that
    leaves most of the contaminated materials in place in the Grasse

    Cancer Action NY will continue to work for full clean-up of the Grasse
    River. This is the only acceptable remedial goal. We will bring out
    the Truth about corporate control of government and government
    corruption that results in decisions being made that place the
    financial interests of corporations above environmental protection and
    public health protection. ALCOA is a corporation that has no honor.
    The EPA is a government entity that has no honor. We will win because
    we have honor, goodness and Truth on our side.

    joyous in Nature,

    Donald L. Hassig

  12. mervel says:

    Well not quite so much, I mean the ACR is not a super fund clean up site. Would building the ACR really make all fish so toxic that you are not supposed to eat ANY of them in Tupper Lake?

    I don’t think people realize how polluted it is up here.

  13. Tehnoiehate says:


    7.2 miles upstream from the confluence of the St. Lawrence is the target area (polluted).

  14. Mervel says:

    Thanks Tehnoiehate.

    Also I have never seen a company or corporation promise anything for 30 years, Alcoa may not exist 30 years from now, they open and close plants all of the time. What exactly is the jobs promise made here and if they fail to provide 900 jobs for 30 years, will there be a penalty?

  15. Mervel says:

    My bet is the language of the jobs promise is that as long as business conditions remain favorable for products produced at this specific plant, we will keep operating and of course ALCOA determines what favorable means. Usually I am pro business particularly up here where we need more industry we need more business, but I think we cut a bad deal with this one. The cheap power should have been enough, they should have had to remove the contamination just like GE did on the Hudson.

Leave a Reply