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For Release: Wednesday, July 15, 2020

DEC Announces Agreement with Arconic to Protect Grasse River Habitat in Massena

Arconic to Provide More Than $2.25 Million to Protect and Restore Habitat, Including Critically Important Freshwater Mussels

DEC Holds Arconic Accountable for Natural Resource Impacts from the Ongoing Cleanup when U.S. EPA Failed to Act

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Basil Seggos today announced a landmark agreement (PDF) between DEC and Arconic, Inc. Under the agreement, Arconic will provide more than $2.25 million to protect and restore critical habitat at the Grasse River Federal Superfund site in Massena, New York. Arconic is required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to clean up contamination in the Grasse River, but was not being held to New York State's stringent standards for habitat protection, driving DEC to reach this agreement and help save critically important freshwater mussels and other natural resources.

"The Grasse River provides habitat for this area's renowned bass, walleye, and Muskie populations and hosts an impressive diversity of freshwater mussel species whose long-term viability would have been jeopardized by U.S. EPA's cleanup plans," Commissioner Seggos said. "New York State stepped up to reach this agreement with Arconic when EPA refused. As a result, hundreds of thousands of freshwater mussels and Grasse River ecosystems that depend on them will be protected. DEC thanks its partners in these ongoing restoration efforts, including the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe and New York State Museum, and we look forward to implementing the agreement for the benefit of the entire region."

Commissioner Seggos at his desk signing a piece of paper

The Alcoa Massena-West Plant (Alcoa West Facility) is an aluminum production plant on the north shore of the lower Grasse River. In the 1950s, Alcoa began using and discharging PCBs through outfalls to the Grasse River, contaminating water and sediment with PCBs. The cleanup selected by EPA for the Grasse River began in 2019, and includes dredging and backfilling approximately four miles of shallow water habitat and capping approximately 6.5 miles of deep-water habitat with clean material.

During the cleanup selection process, DEC made it clear to EPA that specific habitat reconstruction requirements must be included to comply with New York's stringent environmental laws and regulations. Although EPA stated in the Record of Decision (ROD) that the remedy must meet these requirements, the federal environmental agency failed to incorporate DEC's requests and, in 2019, approved a cleanup that did not incorporate the State's habitat reconstruction requirements. At that point, DEC notified Arconic that the remedy as designed did not comply with state laws and regulations and started its effort to address these deficiencies.

The final settlement (PDF) announced today provides $2.25 million to DEC for mussel relocation activities. It also requires Arconic to fund contract divers to assist DEC and the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe (SRMT) with mussel salvage operations. Above and beyond the payment and funding the diving operation Arconic agreed to incorporate more suitable habitat material to promote success in relocating mussels after the river bottom is capped, install 400 structures in the bottom of the river for suitable fish habitat, and restore several wetland areas along the river with higher grade materials and native plants. Arconic will also provide its own divers to recover additional freshwater mussels.

The Grasse River's freshwater mussel community is remarkable for its density and diversity; at least 15 different species have been found here. The mussels perform the critical functions of nutrient cycling, sediment structure, and forage base. Without DEC's efforts, approximately 80 percent of the freshwater mussel community would be lost in the cleanup due to their inability to escape and a slow reproductive rate.

Mussel salvage and relocation efforts are paramount to saving this vital resource. With the support of the State Environmental Protection Fund and Return a Gift to Wildlife Fund, DEC tested methods of relocating freshwater mussels annually since 2017 in collaboration with SRMT and the New York State Museum. Video available on DEC's YouTube channel. To date, more than 200,000 mussels have been moved out of harm's way and hundreds of thousands of additional mussels will be saved as a result of this agreement with Arconic.

The mussel relocation project is part of an ongoing partnership with SRMT to address a legacy of contamination and improve habitat in the region. In December 2019, DEC and the SRMT signed a historic cooperative agreement to accelerate the restoration of natural resources in the St. Lawrence River Area of Concern (AOC) at Massena/Akwesasne, which includes the Grasse River.

"This Arconic agreement is an important milestone in recognizing the significance of freshwater mussels in the Grasse River. Additional funding and efforts will contribute towards the shared Department and SRMT benthic recovery goals in the St. Lawrence River AOC," said Jessica L. Jock, SRMT Remediation and Restoration Program Manager.

"The New York State Museum is pleased to partner with DEC and SRMT on this groundbreaking effort to preserve the native mussel community and their habitat in the Lower Grasse River," Dr. Denise Mayer, State Museum Freshwater Ecologist said. "The agreement between NY State with Arconic to protect and restore this critical ecological resource is an example of a profound effort toward protection of New York's mussel diversity and freshwater resources."

Senator Joseph Griffo said, "I am pleased that the DEC and Arconic have reached an agreement that will help to cleanup and restore significant habitat along the Grasse River in Massena. It is important that we continue to remediate, rehabilitate and address the environmental issues affecting the river so that the mussels and other species that call the waterway home can flourish for years to come."

"Arconic is a critical component of Massena's past and future and I'm so encouraged to see their great partnership with the DEC to safeguard our region's natural resources for generations to come," said Assemblyman Mark Walczyk.

"Our natural resources in this community, particularly our rivers must be protected. Restoring the Grasse River will go a long way in protecting our resources. DEC's leadership was vital to accomplishing this agreement and I thank Arconic for doing what is right," said Timmy J Currier, Mayor of Massena.

"The town of Massena has been working diligently for the past few years to make our community a tourist attraction and calling attention to the Raquette, St. Lawrence and the Grasse River for the fantastic fishing opportunities. We are pleased that the NYS DEC will ensure that the Grasse River habitat will not only be restored after the Arconic remediation, but more than likely enhanced. As a resident on the River, I thank Arconic and DEC for ensuring that my grandchildren will be able to fish in our back yard," said Steve O'Shaughnessy, Massena Town Supervisor.

DEC and SRMT work daily with EPA on the oversight of the ongoing federal Superfund cleanup. Along with the New York State Department of Health, the agencies monitor air, water, and residual sediment to help ensure that the dredging of contaminated sediments and capping of the main channel are implemented in a safe and effective manner. Cultural resource investigations, fish contaminant monitoring, and other habitat reconstruction efforts are also part of the overall remedial project. For more information about the Grasse River Superfund Site (leaves DEC website), visit the EPA website.

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