The one-year anniversary of a Mohawk man’s direct action to clean up contaminated soil at a General Motors Superfund site was marked recently with a small demonstration and a promise of more action.
Larry Thompson, a Mohawk man, was arrested in August 2011 when, frustrated by the federal government and General Motors’ broken promise to clean up the site where the giant car company had dumped carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) for decades, he began his own one-man cleanup operation. Thompson took a backhoe to the site and began scooping up the contaminated soil and loading it into nearby railroad cars that were waiting to cart away debris from a GM building that was being demolished. The GM plant is on Mohawk territory that is subject to a pending land claim. Thompson was charged with second-degree criminal mischief, resisting arrest and reckless endangerment. He was held for a few days, then freed on $100,000 cash bail. Earlier this year, a St. Lawrence County judge upheld the criminal mischief charge, which is pending, and dropped the other two charges.
On Friday, August 10, 2012, around 25 people gathered at the GM site to commemorate Thompson’s direct action anniversary and let officials know they are still here and still pushing the government and GM to fulfill their responsibility and clean up the mess.
“We went there. We had a tobacco burn, we had prayers, we had Homeland Security, state police, undercover people and security trucks and security police telling people, ‘Oh, there’s nothing going on here,’” Dana Leigh Thompson, Larry’s wife and spokesperson, told Indian Country Today Media Network. “We had the demonstration as a reminder of Larry’s action, but we’re also going to have another one – but it’s going to be bigger and more organized – sometime within the next few weeks, maybe over Labor Day weekend.”
Thompson said her husband’s action last year was “just to urge them (the federal government and GM) to do what they should have done a long time ago. But the U.S. gave GM the bailout, gave them the money to split up their company and said, ‘We’ll fix it so (the site) doesn’t really have to be cleaned up.’ And meanwhile, back at the ranch, in our community people are dying.” In October 2010, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe and 14 states agreed to allow GM to allocate $773 million to “resolve environmental liabilities” on 89 sites across the country, the U.S. Department of Justice said in an announcement. Under the agreement, Racer Trust, which owns the GM site, is responsible for administering the money and the cleanup. The company has demanded $70,000 from Thompson for minor landfill repairs.
The site, known as the General Motors–Central Foundry Division Superfund Site in Massena, New York, was listed as a Superfund site in 1984 and is one of the top 10 sites in the country. The facility used PCBs from 1959 until 1980, according to the EPA website. When GM closed off the landfill years ago, they capped it with plastic, covered it with clay and soil, and planted trees and grass, but underneath lies a pile of chemicals and PCBs that have contaminated ground water, river sediments, the facility’s disposal area, industrial lagoons, and soils at the facility and on the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe’s reservation.
The Thompsons, who are not enrolled members of St. Regis, have evacuated their property next to the GM landfill because of the contamination, Thompson said. “It’s just sitting on the ground so it doesn’t matter if they cap it and make it look like a golf course on top. It leaches into the ground and ground water. It ends up in our bodies,” she said. The Mohawks of Akwesasne have the highest rate of diabetes in the state of New York, she said. ‘Sixty-five percent of our people have diabetes. We have every kind of cancer. Our kids are being born and they don’t even have their minds. They call it the magnification process of these poisons – it’s been 40 years and now we’re seeing all these incidents of all these strange diseases and cancers.”
The Thompsons have three children and 13 grandchildren and Thompson said she worries about them. “When a baby is born it’s generally a happy occasion and everyone goes to visit the family and celebrate, right? Now we go with hesitation thinking, is the baby going to be alright?” she said.
On Wednesday, August 8, two days before the GM demonstration, New York Sen. Charles Schumer visited Massena, which is also in Mohawk territory, and urged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to “fast track” the Superfund cleanup of the Grasse River, the Watertown Daily Times reported. The river was polluted with PCBs for decades by Alcoa. The river has been waiting for a cleanup for more than 20 years, but according to the EPA website, the only remediation that has taken place was the removal in 1995 of approximately 8,000 pounds of PCBs from an area at the facility.
The agency has explored 10 cleanup alternatives, ranging from a no-cost “do-nothing” option to one costing nearly $1 billion, the report said. Several alternatives in the $200 million to $300 million range involve a combination of dredging and capping contaminated areas of the river. Alcoa has agreed to fund whichever option EPA chooses, the report said.
Schumer complained that EPA has not yet chosen which option to pursue and the delay 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,” Schumer said. He favors a $200 million remediation, according to the report.
Massena Mayor James F. Hidy also seeks a speedy cleanup that would not cost Alcoa too much money. “You can only go to the well so many times before a private company says it’s just not worth it,” he said, according to the report. The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe would like the river returned to a condition in which its fish could be consumed once again. The EPA has posted warnings for years against consuming fish from the Grasse, but Hidy joked about the threat of consuming the contaminated fish. “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.”
Thompson said she doesn’t expect the EPA or Alcoa will do the job right. “If they clean up the river the way it should be cleaned up – by dredging it and sending it to a secure landfill – it’s going to cost $1 billion. They say some parts of the riverbed are 14 feet deep in PCBs,” she said. But that’s not likely to happen, because the local residents are Indians, she says. “It’s just another form of genocide. When it comes to Indians, they don’t give a shit. That’s why they place all these factories and industries next to rural minority communities; it’s environmental racism. We’re off the radar as far as politicians are concerned, because they think, ‘Why should we go there, they don’t even vote? Maybe if they have a casino we might get some cash,’ ” Dana Leigh says. “That’s why our people are in this shape. We’ve faced their onslaught since they first put a toe on our land and we’re still facing it. All they like to do is take, take, take, and destroy.”