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Schumer to EPA: Fast-track Alcoa river cleanup project

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MASSENA - Alcoa must find out the cost of the Grasse River cleanup before it decides to modernize its Massena operations, according to Sen. Charles E. Schumer.

Mr. Schumer urged the Environmental Protection Agency to “fast-track” the cleanup to give Alcoa a clearer idea of the costs Wednesday in front of the Massena West casthouse.

For over 20 years, Alcoa has worked with state and federal agencies to remediate contaminated areas near its Massena East and West Plants, and cleaning up a several-mile stretch of the Grasse is the next stop in that process.

The EPA has finished exploring 10 different cleanup alternatives, ranging from a “do-nothing” option costing $0 to one costing nearly $1 billion, according to spokeswoman Larisa W. Romanowski. Several alternatives are in the $200-$300 million range and involve a combination of dredging and capping contaminated areas of the river. Alcoa has agreed to fund whichever option EPA chooses, she said.

“Our first priority is to human health and the environment,” she said. “There is a set of criteria we use in our evaluation process and one of those criteria is cost.”

The EPA has not yet chosen the option it will pursue, which is problematic for Alcoa’s modernization plans, Mr. Schumer said.

“This obstacle is holding back Alcoa’s plans to expand its operations in Massena. If we can get a good, reasonable settlement on the Grasse River, then Alcoa can expand,” Mr. Schumer said. “Once they get that burden off their back and they know what the financing is for that, they want to expand. I will do everything I can to prevent bureaucratic red tape from holding up the growth because it’s the only thing standing in the way.”

EPA plans to present possible cleanup alternatives and its “preferred option” to the public by Oct. 1, Ms. Romanowski said. The agency will then hold community meetings and gather public comments before reaching a final decision on the cleanup process, which may take a couple of months.

“In many cases, the preferred options are eventually chosen,” Ms. Romanowski said. “The final decision is based in large part on the public comments we receive.”

Mr. Schumer recommended EPA select a $200 million cleanup option, “one that will certainly do the job but is not too onerous” for Alcoa. If the company has to spend more than that on the cleanup, it may have less money available for modernizing, Mr. Schumer said.

The sooner EPA informs Alcoa of the project costs the better off Massena will be, Mr. Schumer said. He submitted a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson echoing those same concerns. In the letter, he said Alcoa has already spent nearly $65 million in north country remediation costs since 1989 for “past environmental mistakes.”

“We just want them to fast-track it and not take a year or two to get it done,” he said of the EPA.

Alcoa’s board of directors ultimately will decide whether to commit to a modernization of its Massena facilities by March 31, 2013. Local staff are using the time between now and then to hammer out the details and make Massena as attractive as possible to corporate. Alcoa’s commitment to modernization could help retain employees and ensure the company’s future here for decades to come.

In order to continue receiving low-cost hydro power from the New York Power Authority, Alcoa must invest at least $600 million in the modernized plant. The project will cost more than that, Plant Manager John Martin previously said.

Grasse River cleanup costs are one of several factors Alcoa will consider when it decides whether to modernize, spokeswoman Laurie A. Marr said Wednesday afternoon.

“The company will evaluate the modernization project based on its ability to provide returns to the corporation,” Ms. Marr said. “It’s difficult for the company to make these significant investment decisions with these huge unknowns.”

The Grasse River cleanup is a very important project to the EPA, Ms. Romanowski said. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe’s Environmental Division are also providing input as EPA selects its preferred option.

“Our input will be reflected in the document when it is issued by the EPA,” spokesman Steve Litwhiler said.

Mr. Martin praised Mr. Schumer for his involvement in the issue.

“I’m extremely encouraged. I think it’s vital we get the support of Senator Schumer on these types of issues,” he said. “It’s about the environment but it’s also about jobs and the economy.”

Christopher W. Baldwin, president of United Steelworkers Local 420-A, said Massena plant workers are going to continue to work hard and hope for the best as the federal government selects a cleanup option.

“If this goes through, we’re one step closer to the modernization, which is good,” Mr. Baldwin said.


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