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DEC among groups to present at St. Lawrence River and Massena area ecosystem update

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MASSENA - Large informational posters were displayed around a meeting room this week in the Massena Town Hall and scientists, conservationists, and other experts were on hand to share updates on steps being taken to address remediation efforts in the Massena Area of Concern.

The two-hour session closed a day long gathering of representatives from the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council Environment Division, and the St. Lawrence River Restoration Council among others.

The St. Lawrence River at Massena Remedial Action Plan Area of Concern begins above the power dam facilities and seaway locks at the Massena village drinking water intake and follows the river downstream for about 15 miles to the international border, according to the Enviromental Protection Agency’s webiste on Great Lakes areas of concern.

Portions of the Grasse, Raquette and St. Regis Rivers, which all empty into the St. Lawrence River, are also included in the Massena Area of Concern. The Cornwall portion of the AOC includes lands in Ontario, Quebec, and the Mohawks extending downstream of the power dam to the eastern outlet of Lake St. Francis.

“Pollution from past local area industrial production and waste disposal practices created contaminated sediments and hazardous waste sites that to a large degree have been and are being remediated. The sources and causes include PCBs, mercury, DDE, Mirex, nutrients, metals, physical disturbance, natural erosion and invasive species,” the EPA website noted.

“Large area remedial projects at Alcoa and General Motors sites have contributed significantly to the restoration and protection of beneficial uses in the AOC. After the Grasse River and limited land-based remedial measures are completed, a reassessment of the status of the beneficial use indicators is to be conducted. When including the installation of water and air pollution discharge equipment, the total costs of the Massena area cleanup will likely exceed one billion dollars. Environmental monitoring will play an important role in verifying that delisting targets and criteria have been achieved.” the website added.

DEC spokesman Steven Litwhiler said seven different Beneficial Use Impairments (BUIs) were identified in the Massena Area of Concern.

“Our area of concern is identified as there was significant pollution issues, habitat modification issues and they’re basically water based. ... Our public involvement began in 1987, so we’ve been “RAP”ing (Remedial Action Planning) for about 26 years,” he noted.

“We started with a Citizen Advisory Committee, which evaluated these beneficial uses to see if they were impaired or not. They came up with a stage 1 document listing which of those uses are impaired. They came up with that in 1990. Stage 2 document identified who caused these beneficial uses to be impaired and what needed to be done so that they were no longer impaired,” the DEC spokesman added.

Mr. Litwhiler added that monitoring continues in various areas including fish and wildlife, water chemistry, and studies to determine if the BUIs are still impaired.

DEC’s statewide AOC coordinator, Gerry Pratt, briefly discussed BUI delisting and how that process occurs.

“In terms of the process for BUI delisting, the way it gets started is our local RAP coordinator requests review for BUI delisting. Steve, in coordination with his technical committee, begin the process of assimilating or synthesizing the data or information to put together a delisting document. Other committee members will review their work with existing (information). They agree or do not on whether to move forward with the delisting document,” Mr. Pratt explained.

Jen Baker, Great Lakes program specialist for the DEC, said some of the studies have focused on determining whether plankton found in the area waters were toxic or impaired.

“Plankton are tiny organisms that drift in the water column and they form the base of the food web. This is one of the reasons why they’re really important. Having a stable base to the food web is important to the entire ecosystem including the larger wildlife that we’re more familiar with further up in the food chain. Another reason that plankton are important is that they’re a good indicator of environmental conditions. They’re sensitive to changes in physical conditions and biological conditions,” Ms. Baker said.

“In 2010, two sites were sampled within (Massena’s) AOC. The St. Lawrence River was sampled at the dam in the fall and the Raquette River near Rooseveltown was sampled in the spring, summer, and fall. No statistically significant reproductive or survival effects were observed at these sites.”

Environmental Scientist Lee H. Harper has recently been conducting field observations of important bird species in the St. Lawrence River area near Massena. He has been doing this work in order to assess populations, reproduction and production of nest sites.

“We basically wanted to identify sentinel avian species inside and outside of the AOC. We considered a number of species and among those we looked at Common Terns, Black Terns, Herring Gulls, Ospreys, and Bald Eagles.

“We wanted to map and monitor the nests of these species, we wanted to determine their productivity in terms of the number of chicks fledged per nests and we wanted to collect eggs of these bird species to test them for contaminants,” according to Mr. Harper.

“Unfortunately that’s now been put off for next year because we really had a hard time getting a federal permit,” Mr. Harper said. “We haven’t matched Bald Eagles because of its status as a sensitive species, although it may very well be coming off the New York state special species list before long. But nonetheless at this time various agencies requested that we not publish known locations, at least not with dots on a map with certain scales.”

St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council Enviroment Division representative Jessica Jock said tumors found on fish continue to spark concerns for many anglers.

“I just wanted to present how the primary public perception is still anything externally seen on a fish is related to contaminants or any impacts to the water. That is something that we’re going to have to work with as we move forward as to how we want to engage the public and make them aware as we get the data results back. We want to try to indicate that that may not be the case,” Ms. Jock said.

“We took some notes at the trustee public meetings. We did see a difference on the community perception from Akwesasne, where there were the concerns that were raised by multiple people on different occasions about the consumption of contaminated fish, whereas in Massena, the public perception was more of concern with conservation of fish species,” she noted.

“So there is still that difference in perception which makes sense if you look at where the area of concern is and where those impacts may be seen, predominantly if you’re fishing above the dam, you’re less concerned with contaminant consumption issues than downstream in the dams, and I think most fishermen are aware of that.”

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