Outrage builds in Akwesasne over PCB contamination reality

AKWESASNE – The recent reporting of documented higher levels of cancer-causing pollution at the nearby former General Motors plant has some Akwesasne residents shaking their heads. These community members say that they have been telling the public that the news is as bad as it could be imagined in any nightmare. Learning that the amount of contamination is up to 250% higher than was originally reported has only underscored that realization for these environmental activists.

The industrial area is part of a federally- recognized Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund Cleanup site, one of three in the immediate area of Akwesasne.

In January, the EPA presented an update on the site cleanup. Anne Kelly, of the EPA Emergency and Remedial Project Response Division, reported that the site work was over budget due to the amount of contamination that has been excavated to date. The contaminants at the site are polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBS).

“It’s really pure PCB product,” Kelly said. The federal regulations for a cleanup project begin at 10 parts per million. The concentrations being found in untreated sludge forty feet below the surface measure out at 500,000 parts per million in this current status update. This has caused the weight of excavated soil to increase per cubic yard. 121,000 tons were expected to be removed prior to the project. However, 335,000 tons have already been excavated with many more tons remaining.

The contaminated soil is considered a toxic waste by the EPA.

The news has been quietly received around most of Akwesasne. In contrast, the comments of longtime environmental activists stand out. “For 32 years we’ve been waiting for them to clean it up,” stated Kakwerais, who is also known as Dana Leigh Thompson. “Remove the pile, remove the Superfund site, take all of their poison out of here and put it into a secure site,” she said. “They call it a cleanup but it’s really a cover-up,“ Kakwerais noted.

The outspoken land rights defender has taken to the media many times on this subject. “It’s called environmental genocide. We can’t wait longer because our people are dying. Our children are being born without their minds. All this poison goes to our land,” Kakwerais said.

Science also seems to back up the activist claims. One compelling source is noted PCB contaminant researcher David O. Carpenter, M.D. who is a neurotoxicologist and professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Toxicology in the School of Public Health at State University of New York.

Carpenter has studied PCB pollution around Akwesasne for many years. He notes that in 2013, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reached a consensus for classifying PCBs as carcinogenic to humans. This is the highest ranking for carcinogens that the IARC uses. Additionally, he explained the World Health Organization (WHO) now considers oral and respiratory exposure to PCBs to be major exposure routes to both human beings and wildlife living near contamination sites. All of this means that Akwesasne residents are forced to live near very dangerous waste substances.

The SUNY researcher maintains landfills like this one are an inherent health threat. “PCBs volatize and escape into the air. The landfill should be moved totally away from the reservation,” Carpenter says.

Recent studies done on the recorded levels of testosterone in Akwesasne men and adolescent males both indicate that the presence of PCBs in Native foods has led to a decrease in testosterone levels in both population segments.

James Ransom, a former member of the St. Regis Tribal Council said the issue involved in the cleanup is money. “The real crime that’s been committed here is by General Motors. The United States basically let them shed their toxic assets. Communities like Akwesasne pay the price for that decision,” Chief Ransom explained.

EPA representative Kelly stated in her update that $121 million had been allocated for the local cleanup, which was intended to cover 100 years of operations, maintenance and monitoring. The projection of costs was related to a 2007 General Motors bankruptcy settlement, which saw most of the overall cleanup allocations going to this project, from a possible 89 U.S. sites. Kelly said that the whole $121 million remains available for immediate needs. “You really don’t know what’s down there until you start digging,” Kelly commented.

Kakwerais the activist thinks she has seen enough of the federal agenda to come to a conclusion on the subject of pollution in Akwesasne. She wishes that federal prosecutors would go after the corporations guilty of these environmental crimes. Instead these offices are intent on prosecuting the victims left living on this contaminated land instead of helping them. “It’s the legacy of colonialism’s divide and conquer tactics,” she concludes.

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you…our poor and minorities must be given their basic rights. Imagine what Chief Seattle would say…seeing how his people throughout this country have been treated ?? As a white man and as a human being, I am ashamed.

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