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Schumer: EPA should move ahead with proposed Grasse River remediation

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MASSENA - Sen. Charles E. “Chuck” Schumer is urging federal environmental remediation officials to move ahead on their proposed clean-up of the Grasse River in order to support and strengthen the economy of the north country.

Mr. Schumer’s comments on Monday come three days after Alcoa announced its plans to proceed with the next phase of the modernization of its Massena aluminum production facilities, which is a requirement of a deal with the state that guarantees a long-term supply of low-cost electricity from the New York Power Authority.

Alcoa has pledged to spend $42 million toward modernization work that would begin in June 2013, and contribute $10 million toward economic development in the north country, money that would be distributed by NYPA.

In exchange for modernizing, the contract guarantees Alcoa low-cost hydropower for the next 30 years, with an option to extend the contract another 10 years depending on economic conditions.

However, Alcoa has also said that its decision to modernize is contingent on whether the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chooses to move ahead on its proposed Grasse River remediation project, an estimated $245 million project to be paid for entirely by Alcoa.

Mr. Schumer feels the proposed remediation plan is the best option to remove PCBs released by the aluminum manufacturer, while leaving Alcoa in a strong enough fiscal position to proceed with the modernization.

During a visit with company and local government officials at the Alcoa East Plant Monday, Mr. Schumer said Alcoa has a limited amount of capital, and that if the company is forced to spend a much higher amount on its cleanup of the Grasse River, they may not have enough left over to modernize its facilities, a project that many see as crucial to ensuring Alcoa’s continued presence in Massena.

“We are happy to have a (cleanup) plan on the merits, but it shouldn’t go overboard. The cost of that (proposed clean-up) would allow Alcoa enough money to modernize its plants,” Mr. Schumer said.

Other proposals for the cleanup range from a less extensive $114 million option to a $1.3 billion project, EPA Remedial Project Manager Young S. Chang said.

In November, EPA officials presented the proposed cleanup to residents of Massena and Akwesasne at separate public hearings. The majority of Massena residents expressed support for the proposed remediation plan, but most Akwesasne residents who commented at the hearing expressed a desire to see the most expensive and most thorough remediation for the Grasse River.

Mr. Schumer said he would like the EPA to reach a decision this month on the remediation, and for that decision to move ahead with the proposed plan.

“The deal isn’t done. We have to push that ball across the goal line,” Mr. Schumer said. “So today I urge the EPA to move ahead on a plan, and to do it quickly.”

Mr. Schumer pointed out the modernization and Grasse River remediation projects would collectively pump more than $800 million into the region. He also said the plant modernization would create new jobs at Alcoa’s Massena plants - although Alcoa hasn’t stated that it would - and for this reason, he would like the EPA to move ahead on the proposed cleanup.

“We don’t want the EPA to dither. They’ve come up with a fair, on the merits plan,” Mr. Schumer said. “I know it will mean many, many more jobs” in the area.

Sen. Joseph Griffo, R-Rome, applauded Mr. Schumer for taking an interest in the future of both the company and the region, saying Alcoa provides many jobs in the area and is “very important to this community.”

The EPA is currently reviewing comment from the public hearings in November as they work to develop their Record of Decision on the clean-up, and spokeswoman Larisa Romanowski expects agency officials to reach that decision “soon.”

EPA officials previously estimated a decision would be reached one to three months after the close of the public comment period on Nov. 29, 2012. Ms. Romanowski said the EPA is continuing its consultations with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the New York State Department of Health and the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, which was previously in favor of a more expensive remediation plan that would remove more of the contaminated soil.

Tribal officials didn’t return a call requesting comment as of press time Monday.

However, one Mohawk official said he felt most tribal officials wanted to see the “right choice” made for the remediation of the Grasse River.

“We want the right choice to be made and a full cleanup would be the right choice,” said Charles “Chaz” Kader, clerk of the men’s council of the People of the Way of the Longhouse. “We can’t give a free pass to that pollution because that pollution was part of the money Alcoa made” operating at its Massena plant.

Mr. Kader said the most thorough cleanup should be reached in order for Alcoa to both make amends to the people harmed by the PCBs the company unknowingly released and to provide clean, safe waterways for future generations.

“We’re still reconciling the past. We’re not trying to hand-string the future,” he said.

However, local government officials feel the proposed remediation plan is in the best interest of Alcoa, the community and the environment.

“We think it makes sense environmentally, it fits into Alcoa’s budget and we’d like to see that in the (EPA’s decision),” Town Supervisor Joseph D. Gray said. “You’re never going to restore the river to its original state, but the cleanup project proposed last fall would remediate some problem areas and help us move forward.”

Mayor James F. Hidy applauded both state and federal lawmakers for weighing in on the matter, including Mr. Schumer, Congressman William Owens, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Huevelton, Mr. Griffo and Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresea.

According to an Alcoa press release, the full modernization is also contingent upon changes in the global economy, changes in the aluminum industry, an inability to obtain funding for the project or other risk factors.

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