Sunday, July 26, 2020

DEC Announces Agreement to Protect Grasse River Habitat

Grasse RiverArconic to Provide More Than $2.25 Million to Protect and Restore Habitat, Including Critically Important Freshwater Mussels
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Basil Seggos has 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. 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 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.

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, visit the EPA website.

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Information attributed to NYSDEC is taken from press releases and news announcements from New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation.

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