By: Michael Virtanen
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Federal officials said they removed 335,000 tons of PCBs, contaminated soil and other material at the ongoing Superfund cleanup of a shuttered General Motors factory, far more waste than expected.
The 270-acre Massena site, next to the St. Lawrence River and the Mohawk Indians’ Akwesasne Reservation in northern New York, is one of 89 polluted ex-GM industrial locations around the country covered by the $773 million cleanup budget from GM’s 2011 bankruptcy.
Officials have spent about $77 million of the $121 million allocated for Massena and will need to tap other funds to complete their six-year cleanup as planned in 2016, Environmental Protection Agency project manager Anne Kelly said. In its 2014 update, the EPA said waste removal was more than four times the 77,100 tons anticipated at this point in the original settlement agreement.
Kelly said they’ve made progress containing PCB contamination and that monitoring data from wells dug around the site now show no plume of contaminated groundwater.
The waste has been shipped by rail to a landfill in Indiana.
Last year’s excavation of former lagoons where PCB-laden sludge was dumped by the factory went far deeper and wider than expected. In one covered lagoon, the weight of the soil on top pushed the waste down and out into the surrounding ground, “squeezing it in every direction,” Kelly said. The five-acre excavation of the lagoons at the north end of the property went down 53 feet in some areas, she said.
“We like that they’re digging up more material than they expected to find,” said Craig Arquette of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe’s Environmental Division. But what it shows is that the problem is much bigger than originally thought, he said.
Meanwhile, the tribe still wants the EPA to remove a 12-acre landfill, capped with soil and grass, that stands right next to the reservation, Arquette said.
“We would prefer them just to keep going, send it all offsite,” he said.
The EPA project includes further waste excavations this year south of the landfill, followed in 2015 with plans to cut the landfill back about 150 feet from the reservation and the river.
In 2011, Larry Thompson, whose family property is 30 feet from the landfill, drove through the fence and began digging up the mound with a backhoe to protest federal plans to leave toxic waste there. He was arrested and more than a year later pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of misdemeanor criminal mischief.
GM made aluminum cylinder heads at the site starting in 1958, polluting the land and water with PCBs, heavy metals and other toxics. It closed in 2009. The site was designated a federal Superfund priority in 1984, with contamination in two disposal areas, the industrial landfill and four lagoons.
PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are considered probable carcinogens by the EPA and are the main contaminant. They were dumped as sludge after being used as electrical equipment coolants. The toxins persist in human tissue for years. High levels have been found in St. Lawrence River turtles and fish, which the state warns against eating.
Last year, the International Agency for Research on Cancer reclassified PCBs as a known human carcinogen.
Dr. David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and Environment at the State University at Albany, said their ongoing research from data collected at Akwesasne in the 1990s show higher levels of PCBs in people are associated with diabetes, lower IQ and memory function, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, earlier menstruation and lower testosterone.
“They all have relatives who died of cancer or have cancer, but to really look at cancer you have to have a much larger population,” he said.
“They pretty much stopped eating the fish, which was the source early on,” Carpenter said of the 12,000 to 14,000 people on the reservation. However, he said recent research shows damaging health effects from breathing airborne PCBs.
The reservation is both downriver and downwind from the Superfund site.