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Mohawks opposed to EPA Grasse River cleanup plan

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MASSENA — The St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Government is opposed to the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed plan for the cleanup of the Grasse River.

The tribal government issued a statement late Tuesday afternoon declaring its opposition to the $243 million EPA plan Monday. The 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 cleanup alternatives, ranging from a “do-nothing” option costing nothing to one costing nearly $1 billion, spokeswoman Larisa W. Romanowski said previously. Alcoa, which had caused the contamination decades earlier, will fund the work.

Several alternatives were in the $200 million to $300 million range and involved a combination of dredging and capping contaminated areas of the river.

But Mohawk officials say capping is not an adequate method of cleaning up the river.

“Capping is not a permanent remedy and ice scour is a constant threat to any cap in the Grasse River,” Kenneth L. Jock, director of the tribal government’s Environmental Division, said in a statement. “Therefore we do not support the capping of the highly contaminated sediments in main channel.”

“We do support dredging of the entire near-shore area of the Grasse River — everything along the banks to five feet in depth,” Mr. Jock said. “Nobody has any real-world evidence that a cap can withstand a major ice jam and ice scour.”

The Mohawk Environmental Division’s conclusions differ from Alcoa’s; company officials said their 15 years and $65 million in research indicated capping would protect human health and the environment and allow the Grasse’s natural restoration to continue.

But Mohawk officials contend that capping would not eliminate the industrial pollutants, which still are in the river.

“We do not support the capping of the main channel’s highly contaminated sediments just as we do not support a cap over the (General Motors) dump,” Tribal Council Chief Ronald W. LaFrance said. “The cap in the river would leave about 93 percent of the contaminated sediments in the river bottom.”

Mohawk officials did not detail extensively their preferred cleanup proposal in Tuesday’s release, but said their plan would restore the Grasse River’s habitat and achieve a “safe fishery.” The river’s pollutants have affected the river’s wildlife, which in turn has created “well documented health effects” on the reservation population, which fishes locally.

“This would not only benefit the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, it would benefit the entire region,” Tribal Chief Randy Hart said. “Both the local and downstream areas would be improved.”

If the Mohawks’ plan involved additional dredging, it would likely drive up the cost. On Monday, U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer had praised EPA’s preferred option because it was “a balanced way to clean the Grasse River and protect public health without breaking the bank.” He was hopeful the project’s costs would give Alcoa the “confidence necessary” to push forward with a modernization of its Massena operations, an investment of at least $600 million in the community.

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