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Mohawks want public input on environmental restoration plans


MASSENA - St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council officials want public input on their plan to utilize damage settlement funds to restore area wildlife, resources and Mohawk Indian customs that were damaged by decades of industrial pollution.

Late last month, New York state and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe reached a $19.4 million settlement with Alcoa and Reynolds for damages to natural resources, fishing, and Mohawk culture resulting from the release of industrial pollutants into the St. Lawrence River environment since at least the late 1950s. Combined with $1.8 million in restoration funds from a 2011 General Motors bankruptcy settlement, the two settlements will provide some $20.3 million toward environmental and cultural restoration.

Of those funds, approximately $8.4 million will go toward programs that support Mohawk cultural practices, more than $10 million will go toward environmental restoration and nearly $2 million will be spent by Alcoa and Reynolds to develop and upgrade boat launches to improve fishing and boat access to the Grasse and Racquette rivers.

To gauge public opinion on how the settlement funds should be used, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe will hold two public information sessions, the first from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Office for the Aging in Akwesasne and the second from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Dar’s Place Banquet Hall in Massena.

According to Barbara Tarbell, natural resource damage assessment program manager for the tribe, the information sessions are intended to help ensure that the restorations plans address all concerns of those affected by the environmental damage caused by pollution. After the close of the 30-day public comment period May 4, the St. Lawrence Environmental Trustee Council - a group consisting of officials from the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation - will review the public comments as they finalize their restoration plan.

The $8.4 million will go toward the creation of apprenticeship programs to teach young adults Mohawk language, traditional teachings and outdoors skills, such as hunting, trapping and fishing. “Those things have really decreased because of the pollution,” Ms. Tarbell said.

Ms. Tarbell hopes these young adults will use the skills learned at these programs to benefit their families.

Industrial pollutants released by Alcoa and Reynolds throughout the 1950s, ‘60s and ’70s resulted in a New York State Department of Health advisory in the 1980s, warning people not to consume fish from the Grasse River, which many say caused significant damage to the health and culture of the St.Regis Mohawk people.

That funding will also create youth outdoor education programs and horticultural programs for medicine, healing and nutrition to help promote Mohawk tradition.

Ms. Tarbell said the environmental restoration efforts will focus on improving and preserving habitats for local fisheries, birds, mammals and river sediment-dwelling creatures eaten by many fish. The environmental restoration efforts will focus on areas down river from the Alcoa and former GM plant site, Ms. Tarbell said previously.

“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 previously.

Following the release the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s estimated $245 million Grasse River remediation plan, the tribe has decided not to use any of the settlement funds toward restoring the wildlife within the Grasse River, Ms. Tarbell said.

Tribal officials have strongly opposed the EPA’s remediation plan, saying it does not do enough to remove carcinogenic pollutants from the river and is too generous toward Alcoa, which must fully fund the remedial work. Tribal officials had called for a more costly remediation plan that would include more dredging to remove contaminated sediment from the river, despite the EPA’s insistence that more dredging would not result in a cleaner river.

The reason for not including the Grasse River in the restoration plan is because of “uncertainty of the capping remedy proposed,” Ms. Tarbell said

According to Ms. Tarbell, some of the restoration projects may begin immediately, while others will require several years of design and preparation, and the benefits of these programs may be seen for decades to come.

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