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Mohawk man arrested after digging into toxic Massena landfill

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MASSENA — A Mohawk man long frustrated with the cleanup efforts at the General Motors Powertrain site decided to take matters into his own hands on Thursday.

Larry Thompson, who goes by the Mohawk name of Kanietakeron, attempted to remove contaminated soil in the GM site by digging into a 12-acre capped landfill area with an excavator. For more than two hours, he dumped the contents of the landfill in a nearby spot.

His wife, Dana Leigh Thompson, said the plan was for backhoes to take the contents from the landfill and then transport them to rail cars, which would cart the waste to a secure location. A group of fellow Mohawks looked on, and by 11 a.m., about a dozen state troopers were also on the scene.

Mr. Thompson didn’t get to finish his job. By 1 p.m., state police had arrested him. He was charged with two felony counts of second-degree criminal mischief for damage in excess of $1,500, as well as misdemeanor counts of second-degree reckless endangerment and resisting arrest. He was arraigned by Massena Town Justice Gerald P. Sharlow and sent to the St. Lawrence County jail, Canton, on $100,000 bail or $200,000 bond.

Mr. and Mrs. Thompson own land adjacent to the GM site, which was listed as one of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund sites in 1984. The site, which is in the town of Massena, borders the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation.

When the Thompsons found out the EPA planned to leave the landfill there permanently, they decided to take action. Residents near the site have been poisoned throughout the decades from the contamination there, Mrs. Thompson said.

“We gave them 32 years to do due diligence, do what’s right,” said Mrs. Thompson, who goes by the Mohawk name Kakwerais. “It’s called environmental genocide.”

“We can’t wait longer because our people are dying,” she said. “Our children are being born without their minds.”

At one point, state police Bureau of Criminal Investigation Investigator Andrew Gayeske approached Mrs. Thompson and asked if he could speak to her husband.

“Can I talk to him?” he asked. “I can see everyone’s upset.”

“You’re 32 years too late,” Mrs. Thompson responded.

Anne E. Kelly, EPA project manager, was on her way to Massena to inspect the damage, according to EPA spokesman John Senn.

“We are in constant contact with everyone on site,” Mr. Senn said. “We are going to evaluate the site moving forward. We’re also working to make sure any of the contamination that was disturbed at the site is contained at the site and that any exposure was minimized.”

According to a report on the EPA’s website, the landfill contains sludge laden with polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, as well as foundry sand, soil and concrete excavated during the plant’s construction, die casting machines from the plant and other solid industrial waste.

GM, under the direction of EPA, capped the landfill in 1987 to “mitigate the migration of contaminants” from there, the EPA report said. Mr. Senn said EPA decided to leave the landfill there permanently out of health and safety concerns. “EPA selected capping as the remedy for the landfill at the GM Massena site because capping is protective of human health and the environment,” Mr. Senn said in an email.

But the health of Mohawk people will be compromised as long as the landfill is there, capped or not, Mrs. Thompson said.

“We lived here all our life with that leeching here,” Mrs. Thompson said. “It’s not a cleanup. It’s a cover-up. ... All this poison goes to our land.”

Mrs. Thompson said her husband’s actions were intended to help Mohawk residents long-term. When asked if her husband was trespassing on the site, she said everything, including the site, was “Indian land.”

“We want to secure our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren’s future,” she said.

She blamed the contamination over the decades for abnormally high rates of cancer and other diseases on the reservation.

“Go look at our people. They’re all dying,” she said.

Mrs. Thompson said her husband’s actions were not in any way related to the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council, the only government on the reservation recognized by the state of New York. Tribal officials did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

One of Mr. Thompson’s criminal mischief charges stemmed from allegedly disrupting the landfill, while the second was for driving through the perimeter fence at the GM site.

The reckless endangerment charge stemmed from Mr. Thompson’s moving the excavator toward troopers at one point and dumping the toxic waste at their feet, causing a “substantial risk of serious injury,” state police said.

At his arraignment, Kanietakeron said Larry Thompson was his “slave name.” After Mr. Sharlow read off each charge and asked Mr. Thompson if he understood, Mr. Thompson shook his head no.

“These felony charges are quite concerning,” Mr. Sharlow said. “You don’t seem to recognize anything.”

“I don’t agree with the proceedings,” Mr. Thompson said. “You are in violation of my rights. You can and should be held with high treason.”

Mr. Sharlow responded that he was only doing his job as a sworn town justice.

“This is nothing personal. This is my job,” he said.

“I take it personally because of your ignorance,” Mr. Thompson responded.

Mr. Thompson is scheduled to reappear for a preliminary hearing in local court Monday.

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