Trust and Priority in the Age of Pollution Politics
The Akwesasne Kanienkehaka Territory, also known as the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation, is located in the immediate area of three United States Environmental Protection Agency ( EPA) designated Superfund cleanup sites. Plans were recently released to remediate the Grasse River site, located in the New York St. Lawrence River Watershed, due to river sediment polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) contamination by the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) that occurred in the area of the 1796 Treaty of Seven Nations Grasse River pasture area and five miles downstream.
The EPA Superfund clean-up announcement is timely in that New York Senator, Charles Schumer (D), made comments about his desire to see the matter quickly tidied up. Do it quickly, he maintained in a site-visit earlier in 2012. Elected Mohawk officials expressed concern that the bigger point of future land use in this area was being side-stepped.
After watching the first United States presidential debate, and hearing about a plan to cut back on regulatory agency budgetary overhead, the thought that Schumer expressed may have been prescient. Has corporate America made the decision to “move forward” from the mess that it created by destroying parts of Turtle Island; is the social conscience weighing too heavily on Boards of Directors to look back very far to fix what’s been broken?
The decades long study of the Grasse River pollution included ALCOA model test areas that featured a layering of non-contaminated materials over the PCB saturated river bottom and shoreline. Mohawk tribal members have stated at public meetings that the “ice scouring” that occurs each spring, itself removes feet of shoreline, as jagged chunks of ice are forced downstream upon seasonal thawing. Once again, Turtle Island spoke to the people as to the way that things were meant to be.
Another recognized pollution area within this speck of the Kanienkehaka homeland of Kanienkeh is the decommissioned General Motors (GM) manufacturing site on the St. Lawrence River, located adjacent to the tribal reservation; strategically on the boundary limits of St. Lawrence County. This site is located as far downstream as possible from local municipalities, but ahead of reservation riverfront development. This location is clearly not a coincidence. New York State government, at some level, had to permit the construction at these locations, at some specific point.
The New York State Common Retirement Fund includes “old” GM stock holdings, valued at $8,800,000 and also ALCOA shares worth $61,400,000, according to a 2011 fund diversification report issued by the Office of the New York State Comptroller; whose elected office serves as the single shareholder of the taxpayer-owned pension portfolio. Although the Comptroller’s Office has taken an activist stance in 2012 with regard to sponsored shareholder resolutions involving discrimination bans against gay or transgender workers at some notable portfolio-listed corporations such as Exxon, it has so far remained silent on commensurate accountability regarding corporate pollution remediation to the highest available standards.
The implications of yet another massive pollutant effect on Indian country may seem blasé to some, but the political blow-back potential is without question. After all, detractors will state, these reservation “people” still live there, so why don’t they just move away if it is so bad?
Due to the loss of subsistence fishing, and trapping for that matter, by the people of Akwesasne, due to PCB infiltration of food chain ecology, other employment was harnessed to make ends meet. The border-spanning federal mantras of “once a smuggler, always a smuggler” referencing cross-river economic trade within Akwesasne proper, lacks historical context. Survival in Kanienkeh has always involved individual clan needs prioritization, in part explaining the durability of this decentralized governance by the People of the Land of the Flint in their homeland.
A 1998 study by Mervyn L. Tano of the International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management, entitled Superfund in Indian Country: The Role of the Federal-Indian Trust Relationship in Prioritizing Cleanup, highlights a principle that there is “a legally enforceable trust obligation owed by the United States government to American Indian tribes.” Furthermore, Tano ends the study with an advisory statement that “EPA should have an ongoing program of education, training, technical assistance…for Indian tribes to support tribal participation in Superfund activities.”
It will be ironic then, if not sadly expected, that corporate byproduct pollution remediation will be awarded to the lowest corporate bidder, likely a non-Onkwehonweh (original people) controlled business, to satisfy minimally-set external standards for a land they or their ancestors will not have to live on, while most of the unemployed reservation community will watch and wonder if the best foot is put forward on their behalf.
The sting of environmental futility in Indian country also derives from paper cuts caused by shredded treaties, past-due accounts and unmet obligations to Onkwehonweh shareholders.
Charles Kader (Turtle Clan) was born in Erie, Pennsylvania to a World War II veteran. He attended Clarion University in Pennsylvania, earning degrees in Communication and Library Science, as well as Mercyhurst College where he earned a graduate degree in the Administration of Justice. He has worked across Indian country, from the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana (where he married his wife) to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, and now resides in Kanienkeh.