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EPA announces Grasse River remediation plan

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MASSENA - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has announced its decision to move ahead on its proposed plan for Alcoa to clean up nearly two decades worth of industrial pollutants released in the Grasse River.

The EPA’s approximately $245 million plan - recommended by a number of elected officials who weighed in on the clean-up - will include capping over the majority of contaminated sediments in the river’s main channel, along with some dredging near the shore-line.

EPA officials have noted Alcoa released wastes from its aluminum production and fabrication facilities, including polychlorinated biphenyls and other industrial pollutants from the 1950s until the mid-1970s onto the facility’s property and into the Grasse River.

Those actions have resulted in contaminated sediments in the waters near the Alcoa West plant and approximately seven miles downstream. Alcoa is liable for the costs of the clean-up, and many in the community felt if the costs were too high the company would scrap its modernization plans.

The EPA’s decision comes one week after Alcoa announced its plans to proceed with the next phase of the modernization of its Massena aluminum production facilities, contingent on whether the EPA moved ahead with its proposed clean-up plan. Modernization is a requirement of a deal with the state that guarantees Alcoa a long-term supply of low-cost electricity from the New York Power Authority.

Alcoa has pledged to spend $42 million toward modernization work that would begin in June 2013, and contribute $10 million toward economic development in the north country.

“Alcoa has worked cooperatively with the EPA to address the PCB sediments in the Grasse River, and we are pleased to see this final step in the remediation decision process completed,” Alcoa Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer Kevin Anton said in a press release issued by Alcoa.

“Based on 15 years of scientific research, Alcoa believes the remedy is both protective of human health and the environment and effective over the long term. We look forward to working with the EPA, the New York State DEC and the other stakeholders during the design and implementation phases of the project,” Mr. Anton said.

Sen. Charles E. “Chuck” Schumer, who visited the Alcoa East Plant Monday to urge the EPA to move ahead on its proposed clean-up plan, praised the federal agency’s decision, saying it favorably balanced environmental responsibility with economic stability.

“The EPA’s official release of this fair and balanced Record of Decision is wonderful news for the north country on two fronts: it will clean up the Grasse River and allow Alcoa the flexibility and certainty it needs to retain over 900 jobs and expand its operations at the East Plant, which we believe will inevitably create even more jobs,” Mr. Schumer said in a statement.

“This is one of the best things to happen to the region and St. Lawrence County in a very long time, and I am very proud that we have been a part of it from the beginning to end,” he said.

Alcoa will spend two years designing a remediation strategy, and plans to bid the work out in 2015, with the majority of the remediation work expected to occur between 2016 and 2020.

The EPA explored 10 different clean-up alternatives, ranging from a three-year, $114 million option to an 18-year, $1.3 billion option, EPA Remedial Project Manager Young S. Chang said.

The proposed plan recommends dredging approximately 109,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment in areas close to the shore. In the river’s center, approximately 225 acres of sediment would be capped with clean sand and gravel to isolate the contamination. Another 59 acres would receive an additional “armored cap” of large rocks to further isolate that area’s contamination.

In November, EPA officials held a series of public information sessions in Massena and Akwesasne to gauge the support of the local community, because local community acceptance is one of nine factors the EPA considers when making its decision. Other factors the EPA considers in its decision include the cost of the clean-up, state acceptance, short- and long-term effectiveness, and overall protection to human health and the environment.

The majority of Massena residents expressed support for the proposed remediation plan, but most Akwesasne residents who commented at the hearing expressed a desire to see the most expensive and most thorough remediation for the Grasse River.

Echoing the statements of many Massena residents, government and economic officials, Supervisor Joseph D. Gray said he felt the EPA’s chosen clean-up plan is in the best interest of both supporting the local economy and cleaning the river of cancerous toxins, which resulted in a New York State Department of Health advisory not to consume fish caught from the river.

“The proposed remediation makes the best of a bad situation. It will significantly improve the quality of the river at a reasonable cost to Alcoa,” Mr. Gray said. “It’s practical and makes sense. I consider this good news for the greater community.”

Mr. Gray feels the announcement by the EPA relieves anxiety felt by those in the community who were concerned Alcoa may not move ahead with modernization, and thus, may not remain in the area.

Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, also applauded the EPA’s decision, saying it would provide a staple for jobs and economic stability in the area.

“Finalizing a plan to clean up the Grasse River is another positive step forward for Alcoa, for workers and labor at the facility and for their families in the community,” Mr. Owens said. “Today’s announcement eliminates a roadblock that has created uncertainty around Alcoa’s modernization, and I applaud this progress.”

Mr. Schumer pointed out the modernization and Grasse River remediation projects would collectively pump more than $800 million into the region. He also said the plant modernization would create new jobs at Alcoa’s Massena plants - although Alcoa hasn’t stated that it would - and for this reason, he would like the EPA to move ahead on the proposed clean-up.

Local labors leaders and legislators have urged Alcoa to hire locally whenever possible, both for the modernization of its facilities and the remediation of the Grasse River.

According to an Alcoa press release, they can now move forward with the next phase of the Massena modernization project. It includes spending $52 million for work that will begin in June, including $10 million toward economic development in the north country.

However, they said, the full modernization is also contingent upon changes in the global economy, changes in the aluminum industry, an inability to obtain funding for the project or other risk factors.

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