For more than 20 years, Alcoa has worked with state and federal agencies to clean up PCB contamination at its Massena operations. The aluminum manufacturer is already well on its way to solving the problem, but now Alcoa is prepared to move into the final stage with a $243 million plan selected from among several proposals by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to clean up a seven-mile stretch of the Grasse River.
It is a realistic plan that factors in the nature of the river, the limitations of more extensive dredging and capping, the success of earlier efforts and the costs both in the future and those already paid by Alcoa since the company began remediation programs in the 1980s. In 2001, Alcoa completed a $250 million land-based remediation program to clean up contaminated sites and prevent the leeching of more contaminants into the river. As a result, PCB levels in fish have fallen naturally and have been reduced by 85 percent.
The next phase, under study now for almost two decades, targets the Grasse River by combining dredging selected sections of the shoreline with capping the main channel. A previous pilot project showed that some sections of the river are not suitable to dredging given the nature of the river bottom strewn with boulders and rocks. The cap of sand and large rocks will isolate contaminated sediment and, as earlier studies have shown, may eventually be covered with sediment from the natural flow of the river. The cap also will not interfere with boating on the river.
The favored proposal is in the midrange of 10 plans ranging from doing nothing to the most expensive $1.3 billion plan to dredge and cap the river. Some groups might demand a more extensive and costly cleanup that may not be practical. And the $243 million proposal will take less time to reach the desired outcomes than the costliest alternative.
Even if the EPA approves the proposal next spring, Alcoa will not begin actual work on the river until 2016 with completion slated in 2020.
The EPA will take comments on the proposed plan until mid-November and make a decision in March. That is also when Alcoa is expected to decide whether to move ahead with a $600 million modernization of its Massena operations. That will be an investment in the community and in good-paying jobs. Alcoas costs have to be kept competitive with other aluminum producers in China and Russia.
The EPA plan balances the needs of Alcoa with environmental expectations and interests of the north country.