( Akwesasne's Toxic Turtles Cont. Page 3 )
Hugh Kaufman, Assistant Director of EPA's Hazardous Waste Site Control Division, said in October, 1983, at a Clarkson University conference on "Managing Environmental Risk", that while technology existed to avoid many toxic dump problems, the government and industry were not putting in the necessary time and money to use it and that General Motors could easily have contained toxic leakage from its dumps. The toxic plague that scientists were beginning to piece together at Akwesasne also could have been contained if the Reagan administration had been more interested in prosecuting violations of environmental laws, said Kaufman.
Moreover, Kaufman said that of 18,000 toxic-waste "candidate sites" around the United States, only 8,000 had even been subject to inspection. Of those, 800 had been "identified for national action", of which the Superfund at present had funds to clean up only 115--less than 1% of the toxic-waste sites that might need it. "We don't have the resources," Kaufman said. "It's a brand new program. The EPA lost three years thanks to Mrs. Buford, thanks to Rita Lavell (agency supervisors appointed by President Reagan) . . . You are talking about a situation that will take you through the next century just to stabilize."18
According to Kaufman, special-interest groups were preventing the government from issuing effective regulations to prevent the creation of new waste dumps, as the EPA struggled to deal with decades of neglected effluvia. He also said that lobbyists had been very effective on Capitol Hill in delaying the clean up of existing sites, so costly and embarrassing to companies such as General Motors which, for so long, had disposed of their toxic wastes the easiest and least expensive way possible, with little regard for environmental consequences.
Referring specifically to the General Motors dumps near Akwesasne, Kaufman said that General Motors did not have to dump its toxic waste in lagoons: "If its PCB-contaminated waste oils, a mobile incinerator can be set up at the site. Those materials can be destroyed by the company tomorrow, no problem . . . PCB-contaminated waste oils are one of the easiest waste streams to destroy." Kaufman indicated that perhaps General Motors was more willing to pay fines than to install costly new technology. If that was the case, he said, the EPA should install the technology and charge the company three times the damages. "Certainly," Kaufman said, "General Motors cannot complain that they cannot afford a half-million dollars to set up an incinerator there." Kaufman then implied that the company was using its inability to come to an agreement on clean up with the state as a delaying tactic: "Have they "General Motors", in their plan, requested a mobile incinerator to destroy those materials, or have they just said they are going to dump some kitty litter in it and put a clay cap on it?"19 Kaufman continued:
The longer that those waste materials remain in that lagoon, the more toxic material is going to continue to leak into the ground water . . . Under im-mediate removal or emergency action, (the EPA) can go in and destroy those waste oils and PCBs . . . I's a simple case, but there are two different issues.One issue is a dealing with stopping the leak . . . (The) second issue is thelong-term issue of documenting the movement of contamination from thesite.20
General Motors spokesman, Bill O'Neill, replied that the company "has been working with state and federal agencies to remedy that situation." O'Neill reiterated the company's position that the EPA should not be involved in the "site solution". Said O'Neill: "The site is ours, and . . . if there is any action that is necessary . . . we will be responsible for it and we will take care of it." He said the company "had a method" to deal with the problem but didn't specify what it was.21
Toxic Turtles at Contaminant Cove
At Akwesasne, environmental bills were coming due with amazing swiftness. The degree of crisis at Akwesasne seemed to expand with the number and intensity of studies conducted to measure it. As Kaufman spoke, only the bare outline of the problem at Akwesasne had become officially visible. By the mid-1980s, Ward Stone had begun to piece together evidence indicating that Akwesasne had become one of the worst pollution sites in New York State and possibly one of the worst in North America.
The Mohawks started Stone's environmental tour of Akwesasne with a visit to one of the General Motors waste lagoons, a place called "unnamed tributary cove" on some maps. Stone gave it the name "contaminant cove" because of the amount of toxic pollution in it. "When I first went there in 1985, there were Indian children playing barefoot (in the cove). They were walking in hazardous waste. There was so much PCBs and other contaminants in the sediment of that cove, that the cove bottom was actually hazardous waste."22
One day in 1985, at contaminant cove, the environmental crisis at Akwesasne assumed a whole new foreboding shape. The New York State Department of Conservation caught a female snapping turtle that contained 835 parts per million of PCBs. While no federal standards exist for PCBs in turtles, the federal standard for edible poultry is 3 parts per million, or about one-third of 1% of the concentration in the snapping turtle. The federal standard for edible fish is 2 parts per million. In soil, on a dry-weight basis, 50 parts per million is considered hazardous waste, so the turtle contained roughly fifteen times the concentration of PCBs necessary by federal standards to quality its body as toxic waste. In the Fall of 1987, Stone found another snapping turtle, a male, containing 3,067 parts per million in its body fat--a thousand times the concentration allowed in domestic chicken, and sixty times the minimum standard for hazardous waste. Contamination was lower in female turtles because they shed some of their own contamination by laying eggs, while the males stored more of what they ingested.
The turtle carries a special significance among the Iroquois, whose creation story describes how the world took shape on a turtle's back. To this day, many Iroquois call North America Turtle Island. "To the Mohawks, and to me, it appeared that if turtles were being sickened by pollutants, it might indicate that the very underpinnings of the earth were coming apart," said Stone.23 Now, at Akwesasne, the turtle had assumed a new status as harbinger of death by pollution. The contamination also threatened a struggling caviar industry in the area and shut down many fishing camps that use to draw anglers from around the northeastern United States and Canada. One fishing camp operator, Tony Barnes, was forced to leave his nets to rot in 1985. His only remaining source of livelihood, and the only use for his boats, became ferrying environmental investigators across the river. Other former fishermen got occasional work collecting water and soil samples.
The Mohawks and Stone continued to find contaminated animals at Akwesasne. In 1985, Stone, working in close cooperation with the Mohawks, found a masked shrew that somehow had managed to survive in spite of a PCB level of 11,522 parts per million in its body, the highest concentration that Stone had ever seen in a living creature, 250 times the minimum standard to qualify as hazardous waste! Using these samples and others, Stone and the Mohawks established Akwesasne as one of the worst PCT-pollution sites in North America. Then in the Fall of 1987, they found young ducks in an area once called Reynolds Cove that contained PCBs in their body fat at 300 parts per million. The ducks were too young to fly, so environmental inspectors could be sure that the PCBs had been ingested locally. Stone remarked:
In the Fall of 1987, Mohawk biologist Ken Jock and I went to that cove, and there was a ravine with a stream coming down with a lot of white, foamywater on it, and a strong, chemical odor coming off of that water. We sampled the stream for several thousand feet up to the fence line of Reynolds.And I found that it had high levels of PCBs in the water and high levels in the sediment, for a depth of about eight inches. So they had been going inthere and layering (waste) for many years.24
After these initial discoveries, Stone had trouble getting others to investigate Reynolds, which used PCBs in a heat transfer system that heated pitch. According to Stone, the system experienced explosions, as well as fires, and leaked thousands of gallons of PCBs, especially when it was being refilled.
The Politics of PCB Testing
As Stone compiled data at Akwesasne, he also became a subject of investigation himself:
I got investigated for about six months as to whether my science was correct. Reynolds said the river was polluting them, (that) the river was putting pollutants into their plant in coolant water, and (that) they were not polluting the river. That . . . was garbage. Our data has held up. They are not only polluting theSaint Lawrence River, but the Racquette River as well. And it's going to cost tens of millions of dollars to clean the river and to control the pollutants from Reynolds.25
Stone, an employee of New York's state environmental agency for twenty-two years, said that some of the delay in diagnosing the scope of the environmental disaster at Akwesasne came from the DEC itself:
I counted thirteen people from DEC who went to study that plant (Reynolds) looking for PCBs. No one made a diagnosis. It was about a one-and-a-half hour situation for me, taking samples to make the diagnosis. A couple thousand dollars worth of chemistry. It was mere child's play. If pollution can be missed at Reynolds, it can be missed anywhere . . . This should have been detected and cut off at least a decade ago.26
In 1986, under pressure from the state as well as the Mohawks, however, General Motors closed one of its waste sites, the industrial landfill.