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Schumer: EPA should move ahead with proposed Grasse remediation

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MASSENA — U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer is urging federal environmental officials to move ahead on their proposed cleanup of the Grasse River in order to support and strengthen the economy of the north country.

Mr. Schumer’s comments 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, 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 stated 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 said the proposed remediation plan is the best option to remove PCBs released by the aluminum manufacturer, while leaving Alcoa in a strong 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, it may choose not to modernize its facilities.

“We are happy to have a plan on the merits, but it shouldn’t go overboard. The cost of that 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 the St. Regis Reservation at separate public hearings. The majority of Massena residents expressed support for the proposed remediation plan, but most reservation 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.

“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 news jobs at Alcoa’s Massena plants, although Alcoa hasn’t stated that it would.

“We don’t want the EPA to dither. They’ve come up with a fair on the merits plan,” Mr. Schumer said.

State Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome, applauded Mr. Schumer for pushing 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 reviewing comment from the public hearings in November as it works to develop its Record of Decision on the cleanup, and spokeswoman Larisa Romanowski said she 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 of last year. Ms. Romanowski said the EPA is continuing its consultations with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the state Department of Health and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, which previously was in favor of a more expensive remediation plan that would remove more of the contaminated soil.

Tribal officials didn’t immediately return a call requesting comment Monday. However, one Mohawk leader 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 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.”

Mr. Kader said the most thorough cleanup should be done in order for Alcoa to 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 hamstring the future,” he said.

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