( Akwesasne's Toxic Turtles Cont. Page 4 )
The Akwesasne area was home to many trappers before construction of the Saint Lawrence Seaway devastated the trapping areas and wetlands. To speed the melting of ice in the spring, the level of the river is raised and dropped very quickly; air pockets caught in the water pulverize the hutches, killing their occupants. The animals have drowned en masse, destroying the traditional trapping industry in the area. In a similar vein, logging and acid rain have destroyed many stands of the black asp that Mohawk people use to make baskets and other crafts. Chief Benedict said:
A lot of these things all contributed to a community that was sensitive to its natural surroundings and depending on its natural surroundings. Then, all of a sudden, the rug is pulled out from under you. Then we're expected to survive. But we don't have the tools to survive in this contemporary time.27
Jim Ransom outlined his own proposal for clean up of the General Motors waste sites:
The contaminated sediments need to be excavated and treated on site. The reservation soils need to be removed and treated on site. Clean soils should be brought in to replace the soils taken out. The (General Motors) industrial landfill needs to be permanently treated by excavating and treating the con- taminated soils. General Motors could be given time to find an in-place treatment technology for the landfill. An interim cap should be placed ont he landfill immediately to isolate it, as it is still an active source of PCBs (leaking) into the Saint Lawrence River. Other permanent treatment technologies need to be looked at in addition to incineration and biological treatment. The risks of incineration are potentially high, and biological treatment is not proven for a site this size.28
Studies also found the drinking water at Racquette Point, directly downstream from the General Motors plant, was contaminated from the General Motors plant, was contaminated with PCBs. The main intake for the tribe's community water system was two miles downstream from the foundry and its gaggle of waste sites. General Motors then began supplying people in the area with bottle water, including students at the Akwesasne Freedom School.
Don't Drink the Water, Don't Eat the Fish
In 1986, pregnant women were advised not to eat fish from the Saint Lawrence, historically the Mohawks' main source of protein. Until the 1950s, Akwesasne had been home to more than 100 commercial fishermen and about 120 farmers. By 1990, less than ten commercial fishermen and twenty farmers remained. The rest had been put out of business by pollution, which has devastated the Mohawks' traditional economy, sending many of them to search for employment in casinos and cigarette stores--or off the reservation--to survive. Other people were advised to limit their consumption of Saint Lawrence fish to half a pound a week. By 1990, the state was warning residents not to eat any fish at all, if they had been caught in certain areas of the reservation.
Pollution also may be related to an increase in birth defects among Akwesasne Mohawks. Katsi Cook, a Mohawk midwife on the reservation, said that she never wanted to become an environmental activist, but the role was forced on her as she found more and more infants at Akwesasne being born with cleft palates, deafness and intestinal abnormalities. She then began to study PCB contamination in mothers' milk at Akwesasne.
One mother at Akwesasne, Sherry Skidders, began to cry as she described how she, her husband, Richard, and their seven children learned that they and their land were being poisoned. One day a man showed up to test the water. Another day Stone took one of their ducks to test the level of PCBs in its body fat. A little later another environmental scientist noted that she was breast feeding her youngest child and suggested that she have her milk tested. Although Sherry was repelled by the thought, she had her breast milk tested anyway and discovered it was laced with PCBs. She had been poisoning her own children. "Now you have to wonder every time you take a breath," she said.29 From the Skidders farm, the family can see the large water tower that stands atop the General Motors plant. The setting sun sometimes throws the stark shadow of General Motors' water tower across the land that used to sustain the Skidders and other Mohawks, a visual reminder of responsibility for the land's demise.
In place of the native economy the government offered food stamps, just enough to buy a fatty diet of macaroni and potatoes. The few Mohawks who could afford fish were buying them from New England vendors who visited the reservation in refrigerated trucks. After the Mohawks' intake of native fish was restricted by pollution, the rate of adult-onset diabetes--a problem afflicting many Native American communities--began to soar at Akwesasne. By 1990 half the people living at Akwesasne over the age of forty were diabetic. Health problems developed hand in hand with destruction of the traditional economic base. By 1990 80% of the adults ont he reservation were unemployed or underemployed and 70% were drawing Public Assistance. This was the environmental context in which gambling and smuggling developed as Akwesasne's main industries.
The Struggle over Clean Up
In early October, 1989, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered the Alcoa and Reynolds plants, whose 2500 employees form the economic backbone of Massena, to determine the degree to which their effluent (especially PCBs, organic toxins and metals) had polluted the rivers around Akwesasne. The two companies also were instructed to design a system to clean up the river sediments containing pollutants including possible dredging along with other, more sophisticated alternatives. As a final step, the EPA ordered implementation of that system. The order did not give a final deadline for completion nor estimate a final cost, but the companies could be fined $25,000 a day if the EPA thought they were stalling. In early January, 1991, Alcoa announced that it would take a $90 million charge against earnings to "settle its environmental obligations" at the plant in Massena.
The EPA released its Superfund clean-up plan for the General Motors foundry during March of 1990. The clean up was estimated to cost $138 million, making General Motors dumps near Akwesasne the costliest Superfund clean-up jog in the United States, number one on the EPA's "most wanted" list as the United States' worst toxic dump. By 1991, the cost was scaled down to $78 million but the General Motors dumps were still ranked as the most expensive toxic clean up. The plan covered much of the PCB clean up from the plant but not the industrial landfill. Clean up of that area could cost an additional $202 million, according to the EPA reports. The EPA was proposing first to dredge and clean the Saint Lawrence River, then to excavate, incinerate or biologically treat polluted soil at the plant and some of its dump sites, as well as on some areas of Akwesasne. The EPA estimated that the whole process would take seven to ten years. General Motors' counterproposal estimated to cost $37 million, would have encapsulated the waste sites and monitored them to assure that toxic wastes were not migrating.30
As the people of Akwesasne learned the scope of their poisoning, other corporate suitors appeared on the reservation with proposals for municipal waste and medical incinerators among other things. Terry Peterson, owner of now-defunct United Scientific Associates of Nashua, New Hampshire, told the Mohawks that "They're sitting on a gold mine for themselves up there."31 The "gold mine" he referred to was his proposal to build a large complex to gasify municipal solid waste, a medical waste incinerator and a huge landfill. Ron LaFrance, a Mohawk Nation Council subchief, Director of Cornell University's American Indian Program, and a man widely known around Mohawk country for his love of a good meal, sarcastically told one purveyor of waste plant fueled dreams after the man had treated LaFrance to a very expensive lunch. "Why do you want to go into an Indian community? Is there some sort of compassion from your company to 'save' the Indian?"32 The Mohawks' response to nearly all these self-described "friends of the Indian" was a swift and emphatic "no thanks!"
In December, 1989, however, Mohawk Nation Council subchief, Edward Gray, was given permission by the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs to build a recycling plant for construction debris with consulting advise from a New Hampshire "waste broker". The new plan was called C & D Recycling. After heavy trucks invaded the reservation, a popular outcry caused cancellation of the plan. The Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment asked that the plant be terminated, after Warriors with broad community support refused to let waste-laden trucks pass onto the site of the proposed dump in February, 1990.
Residents had learned that some of the trucks were hauling debris contaminated with PCBs, the very carcinogens that had done so much to debase their land and water during the previous four decades. Some of the construction waste also contained lead-based paint, asbestos, wood preservatives and insecticides. Some of the debris caught fire even before it was unloaded. Dana Leigh, one opponent of the new recycling operation, said it was hypocritical for the Mohawks to allow dumping of potentially hazardous waste on the reservation while they criticized local industrial plants for fouling their land, water and air.
Gray also learned that the trucking firm that was hauling debris to his recycling plant was under investigation in Massachusetts for illegal dumping. This was one reason it may have decided to buddy up with the Mohawks, who quickly unified to fight a new environmental threat, even as factional violence related to gambling continued to explode. Even in this time of profound division, both supporters and opponents of commercial gaming heeded Ward Stone's warning that as environmental laws tightened outside native lands, promoters would be seeking new dumping grounds. As had happened so often in the past, Akwesasne got it first. All Mohawks did not speak with the same voice on the pollution front, however. After the Warriors' outcry against the proposed dump, some Akwesasne residents also asked when they would raise similar protests against pollution caused by some of the casinos. Sewage seepage at Tony Vegas International was mentioned most often.
As the people of Akwesasne turned thumbs down on a stream of new disposal proposals, the EPA in March, 1991, filed complaints seeking $35.4 million in fines not only from General Motors but also against the two largest US waste management companies. Both had helped General Motors dispose of its PCB-laden wastes on and near the reservation. By making haulers of toxic waste liable for their cargo, the EPA was attempting to force them to police their loads more strictly. This was the first time that the EPA had extended liability to haulers of toxic wastes.