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Contaminated Grasse River sediment to be stored at Alcoa West

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MASSENA - Remediation crews will dredge approximately 109,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment from Grasse River in the coming years; however, that sediment may not be going far.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to remediate the Grasse River calls for the dredging of shore-line sediment that exceeds PCB levels of one part per million in the top six inches of sediment, according to Walter Mugdan, director of the EPA’s Emergency and Remedial Response Division.

Mr. Mugdan said that PCB-contaminated sediment will be drained of water, the water will be treated and returned to the water supply, and the soil will be kept at a landfill on the Alcoa West Plant site. This landfill is designed for the permanent disposal of PCB-contaminated sediment, and it currently contains sediment dredged during the engineering phase of the remediation plan, according to Mr. Mugdan.

Some Akwesasne residents who attended a meeting with EPA and St. Regis Mohawk Tribal officials raised concern about the sediment being kept in the area, pointing to the landfill at the former General Motors site as example of what they described as hazardous waste being left carelessly in an area that has already suffered from PCB exposure.

However, Ken Jock, director of the tribe’s Environment Division, said that unlike the GM site landfill the Alcoa West facility is specifically designed for the safe and long-term disposal of contaminated sediment. According to Mr. Jock and Mr. Mugdan, the Alcoa West landfill is equipped with a number of safety features to monitor and prevent PCBs from contaminating the local environment, such as wells to monitor for PCBs, two liners to prevent PCBs from leaking into the ground soil and a layer of clay, soil and vegetation atop the contaminated sediment.

“It’s basically the state of the art, best way of dealing with PCBs at the moment,” Mr. Jock said. “There’s quite a difference between the (GM and Alcoa West landfill) sites.”

Mr. Jock described the GM landfill as an oily, PCB-contaminated sludge that has few safety features and was never approved by the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation. “The GM site in an illegal dump. It was never approved by the DEC,” Mr. Jock said.

According to Mr. Jock, the SRMT worked with then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to sue GM to force the company to provide a more adequate cleanup of those contaminated materials, but that lawsuit was ultimately dropped.

“There’s no protection at the GM site. (But) it’s a much more secure, highly monitored situation at Alcoa West,” Mr. Jock said.

Mr. Jock also pointed out that containment in a landfill is one of few ways of minimizing exposure to PCBs, which are believed to cause cancer and other defects in people exposed to them. He said the most harmful method of exposure is by eating fish contaminated with PCBs, and many say this and other methods of exposure have led to high rates of cancer and other diseases among Akwesasne residents.

Mr. Mugdan pointed out that PCBs were designed never to break down, which is why they were sought after for industrial manufacturing. “PCBs were created because they don’t break down. That’s why they were used at Alcoa,” Mr. Mugdan said. “That’s the key problem.”

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