How Mega Corps contaminated community's land and water since 1903
By Cori Marshall
The Mohawk community of Akwesasne has borne the brunt of the operations of three heavy industrial sites located between the reservation and Massena, New York. The Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa), Reynolds Metals Company (Reynolds), and General Motors (GM) all had operations that released hazardous contaminants onto their immediate properties, onto surrounding land, and into nearby waterways. The contaminants contained Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
PCBs are a man-made organic chemical that consists of carbon, hydrogen, and chlorine molecules. They are known to be tasteless and odorless and can range in consistency from oils to waxy solids. Their chemical and physical properties are determined by the number and position of chlorine atoms in a PCB molecule.
PCBs can have a detrimental effect on health and have been shown to cause cancer. They can also have health effects that are not related to cancer that can impact the immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine systems.
There has been a ban on PCBs in effect since 1979, though they still can be found in products that were manufactured before the ban came into force.
The PCBs that were found to be contaminating the environment, not only affected the waters and wildlife, they also had an impact on the people. The sites have been recognized as contaminated, cleanup and monitoring have been ongoing since the 1990s, and yet there are still issues.
Akwesasne Sub-Chief Ken Jock said that the remediation process “hasn’t been adequate so far in completely cleaning up the contamination.” Rather than remove the contamination from the land and sediments, in some cases, the remedial process opted for containment in place. This is the remedy that was chosen to remedy the industrial landfill at the former GM site.
The landfill and some sediments have simply been covered up with a “cap” to contain the contamination. The cover is to create a barrier between the contamination and the elements to prevent migration off-site and runoff into nearby waterways. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) guide to capping, a cap can contain up to five layers.
A clay layer is placed directly over the contaminated area, followed by a geomembrane, a drainage layer of sand and gravel, and a vegetative layer to fit with the natural surroundings. In cases where the area would be part of a parking lot it would be covered with a layer of asphalt or concrete.
Jock took issue with the fact that there is no liner under the old industrial landfill on the GM site, and that after some dredging took place in rivers, the sediments have been capped as well. “In the middle of the Grasse River the contaminants are still there they are just covered up, they think the contamination will just stay there in a river.” He pointed out that they are still “finding fish in the river with high levels of PCBs and detecting PCBs in the air so we don’t think that this plan is effective, that it is doing everything that they said it would do.”
The remedy has not been all it could have been. Jock said that “what we would like to see is if they can’t completely remove it, which is what we wanted originally, we want them to restore the environment to the way it was before they were there.” He felt as if the companies have been “let off the hook” and allowed to leave contaminated soils on-site.
At this point, complete removal of contaminated soils and sediments seems unlikely. Former Chief James Ransom said, “it would be very difficult, and right now I believe it depends on the invention of a technology that could do on-site treatment.”
THE IMPACT OF UPSTATE HEAVY INDUSTRY
Alcoa established itself in the region in 1903. Their plant, which is still in operation, is located just outside Massena between St. Lawrence and Grasse Rivers. Over the course of operations at Alcoa's aluminum product manufacturing plant, it was found that hazardous substances that included PCBs were released “onto the facility property as well as into the Grasse River through four industrial outfalls” according to an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) site profile.
Sediment in the rivers that surrounded Alcoa’s site was contaminated as far as “seven miles downstream”
Reynolds and GM installed their facilities in the late 1950s. The two corporations' operations in Upstate New York would rely on each other, and as the two properties were side by side it facilitated their businesses. An agreement in the records of House of Representatives Select Subcommittee on Small Business hearings in 1958 outlined how Reynolds would sell molten aluminum as well as the excess property it had under option to GM.
The EPA profile on the Reynolds site states that operational “waste was disposed of throughout the facility," and contaminants discharged into the St. Lawrence. "PCBs were the primary contaminant attributable to the facility." This is not to say that the aluminum, furans, and polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) were traceable to Reynolds.
The GM plant “was built to produce aluminum cylinder heads for the Chevrolet Corvair,” according to EPA information. The facility served as “an aluminum die-casting plant”. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were used in the die-casting machinery until 1980. Industrial waste was disposed of on the property, in “an Industrial Landfill, and four industrial lagoons.”
GM’s operations and disposal lead to PCB contamination in the “groundwater, on- and off-property soil, and sediment in the St. Lawrence and Raquette Rivers, Turtle Creek and Turtle Cove.” Volatile organic compounds and phenols were also found in the groundwater, lagoons, and disposal areas. The good news was public water systems were not impacted by the contaminants.
As a result of decades of industrial chemical contaminants being released into the surrounding environment because of their operations, all three sites were added to the EPA’s Superfund National Priorities List in the 1980s.
THE LEARNING CURVE
The struggle to clean up chemical contaminants from heavy industry dates back to the early 1980s. Former Chief James Ransom, who was Emergency Health Technician (EHT) at the time, said, “It will be forty years this December since we found out about the General Motors site.” It was then that we learned that the groundwater on the site property was being contaminated with PCBs, and it could be migrating into the St. Lawrence river and onto the reservation.
This is alarming when considering that the GM property abuts the territory of Akwesasne, “it is the western boundary of the community, we’re right next to it,” Ransom explained.
At the time, the community was not aware of PCBs, and testing for contaminants was not at all the focus of the EHT program which had begun in 1978. Ransom said, “it was a pretty new program we were just trying to feel our way through, and this just fell in our laps, we had to develop the expertise to deal with it.”
“It was a tremendous learning process,” Ransom explained, “back then we didn’t have internet, so it meant going to the library doing searches there.” They would also visit offices of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) and file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
It was a hands-on learning “we gained the knowledge and experience by actually going out there and doing the work,” Ransom said. Working in collaboration with the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) the team learned to take water samples for PCB analysis. Teamwork was another important tool in the toolbox, the group would eventually partner with a University that would help “determining groundwater depth, which allowed us to install our own groundwater monitoring wells.”
The testing began revealing alarming results, “we were finding extensive contamination in the environment,” Ransom remembered. He related a story to illustrate the impacts the contamination was having on the water, land, and wildlife. It involved a leopard frog.
Ransom explained that “it’s like a chameleon,” it can change its pigmentation to match the color of its surroundings. They knew that something was wrong when they saw “a light-colored frog on dark sediment.” When the frog was removed from the water it was placed on the ground and it was prompted to move.
The frog “jumped and fell on its back and it couldn’t right itself.” The team sent the ill frog in for analysis, the results that came back were staggering. Ransom underlined that the results showed that the frog “was literally walking hazardous waste.”
The fish exhibited signs of high levels of contamination. A local fisher was convinced to provide a sample for testing from a rather large lake sturgeon. Testing revealed that “the fish was not fit for human consumption.” the results came back after the family had consumed the fish.
This event led to the community taking action to protect the health of the population. Ransom said that “it contributed to us issuing our own fish advisory.”
IMPACTS AND CHALLENGES
As the community took steps to protect the health of the people, new and unexpected challenges arose. "Looking back, it was one of those things that we never anticipated," Ransom said as he underlined the fact that not eating contaminated fish is a good thing, which it is.
“Fish is a nutritious food source, and when you cut it out you have to replace it with something else,” Ransom added, people were going to the supermarket to supplement their diet. He believes that “there is a correlation between the advisories that we issued and the onset of diabetes in the community.”
"The biggest problem that we have is trying to prove chemical contamination from industrial activity because you have to have a large enough population to statistically get meaningful results," said Ranson. The population of Akwesasne is not large enough to get results that could lead to forming opinions. “All that could be done is yield indications of contamination.”
Addressing concerns about volatilization coming from the landfills, Ken Jock said "They have been very reluctant to collect air monitoring data which we think is absolutely necessary to get an idea of the exposures that our community is facing all the time.” The Sub-Chief feels that the lack of accurate data makes it easier to not “recognize it as an ongoing problem.”
The community of Akwesasne has been impacted by the operations of three major corporations. The contamination from industrial waste and chemical contamination, specifically PCBs, was vast and continues to affect the community to this day. The struggle to ensure that state agencies get the corporations to clean the contaminated sites so they no longer affect the lives of those who live in the community is ongoing.
Jock underlined that the battle now with the EPA is “to get them to collect congener specific (PCB) data for the air, land, and fish.”