( Akwesasne's Toxic Turtles Cont. Page 2 )
At about the same time, almost two years before General Motors officially acknowledged that a problem existed, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) rejected the company's clean-up plan which would have merely closed and capped the waste sites with none of the expensive but environmentally necessary remedial work that would stop the deadly spread of PCBs, which already had leached out of the foundry's dump.
By the early 1980s John Wilson of the DEC indicated that the department had learned of possible PCB contamination at Akwesasne. Preliminary tests had shown the area to be the worst PCB contamination site in Franklin County with "widespread contamination of ground water".4 Wilson went on to say that "there was no reversal practical"5 a statement that was terrifying to residents of Akwesasne. Wilson also made a statement that angered many Mohawks, saying "The Indians have not been notified," despite the fact that they had many shallow wells that might suffer from ground-water seepage. Robert Hendrichs, manager of the General Motors foundry, said that the company was preparing its final clean-up proposal and that the company was working harmoniously with state environmental officials. Furthermore, Hendrichs also said that PCB-laden materials had been used at the foundry since 1972 when such use became illegal, and that other toxic wastes were being shipped to a federally approved waste disposal site. However, he left a few questions unanswered. When did the contamination begin? What concentration of PCBs had been released? How far into the environment had they spread and with what effects?
For a time early in 1982 it seemed as if concern over PCB contamination at Akwesasne had been one of the shortest pollution scares on record, as General Motors and the DEC assured the Mohawks that there was little to worry about. As the state Department of Health began testing wells in the Racquette Point area, a DEC water quality expert "explained that the hazardous waste dumps on the General Motors property were separated from the reservation by geographical and geological barriers unlikely to permit the spread of the pollutants."6 No PCBs were found in the first well water sample at Racquette Point.7
When researchers tested the water itself, they were unable to find traces of PCBs since they are not water soluble. By mid January, however, body-fat analyses were beginning to come in from Mt. Sinai and they told another story. Traces of PCBs had been found in the bodies of several St. Regis residents. While the Mt. Sinai study did not link the PCB contamination directly to the General Motors dump, Dr. Stephen Levin, an environmental specialist at the hospital, said that "the initial results suggest there is a local source of PCB contamination."8 A week later a test was reported that had found PCBs in one well at St. Regis. The well was not close to the General Motors plant however, and no connection was suggested.9
Little action seems to have been taken regarding early reports of scattered PCB contamination at Akwesasne. In April of 1982, the DEC criticized a General Motors plan to use "scavenger wells" meant to keep ground water below the level of lagoons tainted with waste from the dump. In March, 1983, the state Health Department and St. Regis Tribal Council set up a well-sampling schedule. In July, the tests produced indications of cancer-causing pollutants such as benzene and trichloroethylene in ground water below homes at Akwesasne. A public relations spokesman for General Motors said that neither chemical was being used at the foundry.10
In mid-July, 1983, St. Regis Tribal Council environmental technician, Jim Ransom, complained that General Motors was being less than forthcoming with information. "We don't know exactly what's in the dump," he said.11 In August, General Motors officials declined to attend a meeting of New York State, Canadian and tribal environmental officials. General Motors said it knew of no evidence showing that its landfill was causing health problems. At the meeting DEC officials disclosed that they had asked the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to put the General Motors dumps on the Superfund list. At that time the EPA estimated that the area contained 800,000 cubic yards of sediments contaminated with PCBs. Residents were warned not to eat vegetables from their gardens.
Despite General Motors' attempts to downplay the problem, Berton Mead, a DEC engineer, said on August 18th that "there are a number of areas . . . with high levels of PCB contaminated ground water . . . It does violate the ground water standards."12 At the time, however, General Motors had done no testing of its own property. The company said it did not have enough information to develop a remedial plan. Mead also said that the DEC did not have enough information "to make an intelligent decision" about how the PCB problem at Akwesasne should be corrected.13
In October, 1983, the EPA fined General Motors $507,000, charging the company with seventeen counts of illegal PCB disposal. The fine was the largest the agency had levied in a PCB- related case to that time. The EPA also made Superfund money available to help dredge sediments laced with PCBs from the bed of the Saint Lawrence River and other waterways. During the same month the United Auto Workers disclosed that in 1982 it had threatened a strike at the foundry over PCB exposure on the job. To avoid the strike, the company complied with union demands to clean the interior of the plant. The Mohawks outside, with no such leverage, were not so lucky, however.
In November, 1983, the Watertown Daily Times obtained internal DEC memos dated 1981 to 1983 which revealed that there may have been PCB contamination in the area during that period (General Motors had said that no PCBs were dumped there after 1972). There may also have been PCB leakage at General Motors in addition to that disclosed by the company for the Superfund list. The newspaper also reported that General Motors had not complied with DEC requests for information. While many Mohawks and other local people had criticized the DEC for foot dragging on the issue, the internal memos indicated that the agency had tried to do its job while General Motors had done its best to stall.
The memo obtained by the newspaper indicated that Robert McCarty, a site investigation supervisor, had suggested possible contamination of the reservation and the Saint Lawrence River. Darrell Sweredowski, a DEC engineer, commented that "ground water contamination is evident in all wells and at all elevations along the eastern boundary with the reservation . . . I can only conclude from this information the contamination from one or both of the sludge deposits has indeed migrated off site to the east."14 Apparently unaware of Sweredoski's findings, J. L. Jeffrey of General Motors wrote to the DEC the following May 6th: "Since there is no proof that the Indians are affected by the sludge deposits, there is no purpose to involving them in the closure planning."15
By 1983, Indian Time, a newspaper published for Akwesasne residents, was carrying detailed reports on the effects of PCB contamination as far away as Japan. One article published in early July, focused on the chemistry and industrial uses of the chemicals. The July 27 issues of Indian Time described the effects of PCB poisoning based on exposure in Yusho, Japan, where a heat exchanger leaked PCBs that contaminated a shipment of rice oil during 1968. It stated: "Toxic effects in human beings include an acne-like skin eruption called chloracne, pigmentation of the skin and nails, distinctive hair follicles, excessive eye discharge, swelling of the eyelids, headache, fatigue, nausea and vomiting, digestive disorders and liver dysfunction."16 Symptoms persisted in some cases for several months after workers left the source of contamination, which also caused some cases of impotence and hematuria (blood in the urine).
More than a thousand Japanese who consumed some of the contaminated rice oil were tested afterwards; the concentration of toxicity in the rice oil was 2,000 to 3,000 parts per million, a level of contamination that would become very familiar to environmental scientists testing animals at Akwesasne during the next few years. Of thirteen Japanese women who were pregnant when the they consumed the toxic rice oil . . . two had still births. Live births were characterized by grayish brown skin pigmentation, discolored nails and abnormally large amounts of eye discharge. In addition, some of the babies had abnormally shaped skulls and protruding eyeballs. Such evidence convinced researchers, according to Indian Time, that "PCBs were transferred to the fetus through the placenta."17 Some babies seemed to be getting a double dose, because PCBs also had contaminated their mothers' milk.
In January, 1984, Indian Time reported that Environment Canada was preparing to test for mercury, PCBs and Mirex contamination of Cornwall Island. The article reported that Akwesasne had been accorded an "A-1" rating by Canadian environmental officials because of a history of open dumping on the island. In February, 1985, Indian Time began publishing acid rain readings indicating that precipitation falling on the reservation had an average acidity (pH) ranging from 4.06 to 5.11, considerably more acid than the 5.6 considered the usual minimum pH factor of natural precipitation.
In July, 1984, General Motors disclosed in a report required by the EPA that PCBs and other toxic wastes such as solvents, degreasers, trichloroethylene and formaldehyde had been dumped in the Akwesasne area since 1959 when the plant opened. From 1968 through 1973, PCBs were used inside the foundry to protect against fire and thermal degradation in the seating heat of its die-casting machines. At that time the company had no idea how much had been disposed of over the years (that figure was later estimated to be 823,000 cubic yards). In the sanitized language of the corporation, some of the waste was "not containerized". In plain English, the toxins were dumped on the open ground in a number of sites, the North Disposal Area, the East Disposal Area, the Industrial Landfill and four sludge lagoons, most of which were close enough to contaminate both Akwesasne and the Saint Lawrence River. The company also admitted that its dumping grounds were unlined and uncapped and that the sludge lagoons had overflowed into the Saint Lawrence at least seven times between January and September, 1982. As a result, the Saint Lawrence River now contained "hot spots" of PCB contamination more that 50 parts per million.