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Mohawks want public input on environmental restoration plans

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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, the 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 awards will provide $20.3 million for environmental and cultural restoration.

Of those funds, $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 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.

Barbara Tarbell, natural-resource damage assessment program manager for the tribe, said the information sessions are intended to help ensure that restoration 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 the restoration plan.

The $8.4 million will pay for the creation of apprenticeship programs to teach young adults Mohawk language, traditional tribal rites and lore and outdoor skills, such as hunting, trapping and fishing.

“Those things have really decreased because of the pollution,” Ms. Tarbell said.

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

That funding also will 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.

Following the release of 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

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