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Prompt, affordable cleanup plan needed for Alcoa, north county leaders say

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MASSENA — A balance must be struck between protecting the environment and preserving the economy as Alcoa decides whether to modernize its Massena facilities, according to several elected officials.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer visited Wednesday and urged the Environmental Protection Agency to fast-track the proposed cleanup of the Grasse River, which Alcoa will fund. For more than 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 river is the next stop in that process.

The 10 cleanup options range from doing nothing to completing nearly $1 billion in remediation, EPA officials said. Alcoa, the north country’s largest private employer, wants to know how much that cleanup will cost before it decides next year whether to modernize.

Any Grasse River cleanup option chosen has to be “cost effective” for Alcoa, according to Legislator Gregory M. Paquin. He fears a river cleanup that’s too costly could jeopardize the plant modernization, and balked at the $1 billion estimate.

“If the modernization doesn’t happen, I fear for the viability of those two plants,” Mr. Paquin said. “If we lose Alcoa, this place could become a ghost town.”

Mayor James F. Hidy also worried about Alcoa’s future in Massena if an environmental cleanup became too costly.

“You can only go to the well so many times before a private company says it’s just not worth it,” he said.

The St. Regis Mohawk tribal government goal is to return the river to a state where fish from there could be edible again. A warning has been posted along the affected section of the Grasse for a number of years warning residents and fishermen not to eat any fish caught in that area, which have been found to be contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

Mr. Hidy downplayed the threat of consuming fish from the Grasse River and said he would eat one from there.

“If you eat 30 pounds of fish a day for 13 years, yeah, you’re going to have a problem,” he said. “I’ve seen no one that’s contaminated enough that they shine in the dark at night.”

Supervisor Joseph D. Gray said the river has already been extensively studied for the last 20 years. He agreed with Mr. Schumer’s call for action.

“We should be easily able to find a balance between the economy and the environment,” he said. “It’s a bit idealistic to return the river to the state it was before Alcoa existed.”

As town supervisor, Mr. Gray said he is concerned about both the health of one of Massena’s rivers and the economy. But he is encouraged by Alcoa’s research indicating the river’s pollution levels have fallen over 20 years with preventative actions.

“Nobody’s faulting the science they’re using. Nobody’s questioning the data. It’s good science,” Mr. Gray said. “Senator Schumer’s comments were welcome. We need to move this thing forward.”

“How much more time to we need? It’s been going on for at least a decade. Let’s get it done,” he added.

Mr. Schumer was not calling for EPA to compromise the cleanup in any way for the sake of commerce, Legislator Anthony J. Arquiett said. He wants the cleanup process to get underway as soon as possible so Alcoa has the information it needs.

“I hope there’s a happy medium there. I don’t think anyone in any way wants to be lax in their concern for the environment,” he said. “We need to make sure there are no surprises for Alcoa.”

A $200 million cleanup option proposed by Mr. Schumer on Wednesday, a combination of capping and dredging the river, would be sufficent, according to Mr. Schumer’s spokeswoman Meredith Kelly.

“Sen. Schumer is focused on the healthiest balance between the North Country economy and North Country environment,” she said in an email.

Legislator Jonathan Putney said he was confident Mr. Schumer’s put proposal was sufficient, and that the modernization will come to fruition.

“I have faith that their plan is going to get the job done correctly,” he said. “Alcoa’s modernization will go a long way in providing stabilization to the north country economy.”

For more information on the actions Alcoa has already taken on the Grasse River cleanup, visit http://www.thegrasseriver.com/.

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