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$20M settlement for St. Lawrence River pollution

March 27, 2013

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Claims over industrial chemicals that leached in the groundwater and soil along the St. Lawrence River since the 1950s, polluting tribal land downstream and harming wildlife, were settled Wednesday under a nearly $20 million agreement that includes money for environmental restoration and health and cultural programs for the affected tribe.

The settlement between Alcoa Inc., the St. Regis Mohawk tribe and state and federal officials involves discharges from two factories in Massena that released byproducts including potential carcinogens, damaging the environment and the downstream Akwesasne reservation along the Canadian border.

It includes $7.3 million for restoring grasslands, wetlands and fisheries; $1 million for buying hundreds of acres for state protection and $8.4 million for tribal outdoor education, horticulture, medicine, healing, nutrition and language programs.

“This innovative settlement will restore resources that have been essential to the Mohawk community of Akwesasne for countless years, but that suffered in the 20th century from decades of toxic contamination that degraded natural resources used for traditional cultural practices,” said U.S. Assistant Attorney General Ignacia Moreno.

Federal, state and tribal officials concluded the aluminum factories — one owned by Reynolds Metals Co., now a part of Alcoa — and the former GM Central Foundry plant released hazardous substances including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls, volatile organic compounds, cyanide and fluorides.

Another $1.8 million in restoration funds from a 2011 General Motors bankruptcy settlement will be used in the restoration projects, they said.

Alcoa, which signed the settlement in February, said it is a positive step, ending the case and resolving the natural resources damages assessment process.

“It is not an ongoing issue; it is a historical one,” spokeswoman Lori Lecker said of the releases. “Alcoa will undertake several ecological and cultural restoration projects including purchasing approximately 465 acres that will become part of the Coles Creek State Park and Wilson Hill Wildlife Management Area.”

St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Chief Randy Hart said, “One of the most important aspects of this settlement is to understand the relationship between the environment and Mohawk culture, society and our economy. It’s the most important relationship for any tribe, not just the Mohawks.”

New York, federal and tribal officials since 1990 worked jointly on the environmental assessment as trustees in a collective investigation they said showed that the discharges injured fish, birds, amphibians, mammals and their habitats in and along the St. Lawrence, Grasse and Raquette Rivers.

“Although we can’t turn back the clock, the trustees worked hard to ensure that this settlement improves environmental quality,” said Joe Martens, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said the settlement should help restore the health of the St. Lawrence and its tributaries and Mohawk cultural practices that suffered as a result of the companies’ pollution. He promised to continue to hold accountable those who damage the state’s environment.