Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Dumping Grounds

Did you ever notice how Superfund sites are rarely located in places like Beverly Hills? Usually, the contaminated landfills are situated in less wealthy areas, places that don't have enough money and political clout to make NIMBY work for local residents. Upstate New York has a few of those nasty sites, one of which is located on a Mohawk reservation.

The rural landscape, with houses scattered among fields and trees and along the river, is part of ancestral tribal homelands that once extended 125 miles south to the Mohawk River. The reservation, about 21 square miles on the U.S. and Canadian sides of the St. Lawrence, is home to about 16,000 people.

Immediately upstream is a shuttered General Motors factory, now a federal Superfund site where tons of toxic waste have been removed. Tons more remain, including the 12-acre landfill that has been capped with a layer of clay and grass and declared safe, no longer a threat.

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls — considered probable carcinogens — are the main contaminant, dumped as sludge after use as electrical equipment coolants. Studies 20 years ago documented higher than normal PCB levels in the breast milk of Akwesasne nursing mothers and more recently in adolescents; the toxins persist in human tissue for years. High levels have been found in St. Lawrence River turtles and fish, which the state cautions against eating.
[Emphasis added]

That landfill is located on the Mohawk land, ironically in an area once used for vegetable gardens. Instead of hauling the sludge away, the EPA decided on a cover-up, literally. Some of the residents and their supporters find that a less than satisfactory response.

The federal government says it has eliminated the "immediate exposure pathways" of contaminants leaking into the river and groundwater. After river dredging, groundwater containment and waste removal, the cleanup agreement calls for leaving the landfill as it is. Monitoring and other cleanup work continue.

"We believe that the 12-acre landfill has been contained and that it does not pose a threat to public health and the environment," said EPA's Enck.

But Dr. David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and Environment at the State University at Albany, said the landfill poses a health threat because of PCB air contamination.

"In fact landfills are not secure," Carpenter said. "PCBs volatilize and escape into the air. I'd be very much in favor of digging it up. It should be moved totally away from the reservation." ...

Thompson [one of the residents] believes cancer, diabetes, thyroid disease and other ailments have afflicted generations of people who lived on the reservation. While there are no definitive cancer studies proving the PCBs have caused illness at Akwesasne, Carpenter said recent research has shown a strong relationship between PCBs and low thyroid hormones, adult diabetes and heart disease.

But, hey! They're just Native Americans in rural New York. No big deal, eh?

The EPA should be ashamed.

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