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Mohawks, industrial manufacturers reach settlements on environmental contamination


MASSENA — Roughly 30 years after contaminants from local industrial operations caused the state Department of Health to issue a warning against eating fish from the Grasse River, two settlements have been reached to help correct the damage that was caused to both local fisheries and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe’s heritage.

Tribal officials announced they have reached a $19.4 million settlement with Alcoa, Inc. and the Reynolds Metals Co. for the damage caused by contaminants released by the aluminum manufacturers’ Massena operations since the 1950s. Combined with $1.8 million from a 2011 bankruptcy settlement from General Motors, the two settlements will provide more than $21 million toward restoring local fisheries, protecting the environment and working to restore aspects of Mohawk Indian heritage that were affected by the decades-long fishing ban.

Approximately $8.4 million of the settlement funds will support traditional Mohawk cultural practices, such as apprenticeships on Mohawk language and traditional teachings, youth outdoor education programs and horticulture programs for medicine, healing and nutrition.

“The majority of the funds going to the tribe will be used to restore our relations with nature. Due to the contamination, a lot of our relations to nature have been lost,” said Barbara Tarbell, natural resource damage assessment program manager for the Mohawks.

Ms. Tarbell hopes that these programs will make younger Mohawks more attuned to both their cultural heritage and the natural world, she said.

Approximately $10 million of the settlement will go toward the restoration of the local environment, including fisheries, fish habitats and unique habitats under threat of development. That will include the purchase of approximately 465 acres of land that will become part of Coles Creek State Park and the Wilson Hill Wildlife Management Area, according to Laurie A. Marr, spokeswoman for Alcoa.

Ms. Tarbell said environmental restoration efforts will focus on areas downriver from the Alcoa and former GM plant site and will include portions of the Grasse River set to be cleaned up by Alcoa as part of its remediation project for that waterway. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials are still deliberating whether to move ahead on the proposed cleanup plan, which comes with an estimated price tag of $243 million and should eventually result in the lifting of the fishing ban.

Though welcoming the settlement as a step toward restoring damage caused by local pollution, Chief Ron LaFrance Jr. said no amount of money could fully atone for the damage caused by the pollutants released by Alcoa, GM and Reynolds.

“You can’t put a dollar value on that,” Mr. LaFrance said. “Whenever people from anywhere around the world experience (a staple) that is taken from their diets and something new is introduced to them, that’s not good for them. We suffered high rates of diabetes, disease and obesity as a direct result of the fishing ban.”

Mr. LaFrance remembers a time before the ban when fishing was a common pastime and the fish caught were a staple of many Mohawks’ diets.

“You used to be able to go up and down the St. Lawrence and see fish-boxes everywhere, and now you don’t see that anymore,” he said. “We’d like to get some of that back.”

As part of the settlement, Alcoa will spend approximately $2 million to construct and upgrade five local fishing access ramps. These include a ramp for small boat access in the town of Louisville on the north shore of the Grasse River, a small-boat ramp in the town of Madrid on the south shore of the Grasse, a ramp in Springs Park on the north shore of the Raquette River in the village of Massena, another ramp on the north shore of the Raquette in the town of Massena, east of the village, and a ramp, floating dock and fishing deck in the town of Massena near the Route 131 bridge on the north shore of the Grasse.

“Our goal is to improve the environment in a whole, extensive way. Over time the fish are recovering, and in terms of wildlife, our goal is increase their habitat and increase their numbers,” Ms. Tarbell said.

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