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PCB contamination from GM and impacts to the Mohawk tribe at Turtle Cove, USA


The Aluminum Company of America, General Motors and Reynolds Metals all developed aluminum refineries in Massena, NY due to the cheap hydro-electric power coming from a power dam in the adjacent St. Lawrence River. For decades these companies have been releasing chemicals including Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), aluminum, fluoride and cyanide. This has contaminated the St. Lawrence River, Grasse River and other small rivers that run through the neighboring St. Regis Mohawk Reservation. This contamination has impacted the health, cultural resources, and sacred spots of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe. This has resulted in the discontinuation of the once thriving fish markets, and an increase of health problems related to lack of traditional means of food. The contamination also affected livestock and cattle. One of the most prominent ways that PCB was spread was through breast milk in women that has increased exposure to the children living within the reservation.

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:PCB contamination from GM and impacts to the Mohawk tribe at Turtle Cove, USA
Country:United States of America
State or province:New York
Location of conflict:Akwesasne
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Industrial and Utilities conflicts
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Water access rights and entitlements
Metal refineries
Manufacturing activities
Specific commodities:Aluminum/Bauxite
Manufactured Products
Project Details and Actors
Project details

Cornell University (Ithaca, NY) studies found the presence over 500 contaminants in wildlife near Akwesasne with PCB being the most found. Approximately 20,200 pounds of PCBs were removed from the St. Lawrence River through a Superfund Cleanup. 3,000 cubic yards of sediment, boulders, and debris which included approximately 8,000 pounds of PCBs, 109,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment was dredged from the St. Lawrence River and surrounding contaminated rivers, 59 acres of contaminated sediment need to be covered with an armored cap and approximately 225 acres of sediment need to be capped with a mix of clean sand and topsoil (results from Alcoa Superfund Cleanup.)

Project area:2568
Level of Investment for the conflictive project121 million dollars has been allocated from General Motors for clean up
Type of populationRural
Affected Population: ~10,000-15,000
Start of the conflict:1950
Company names or state enterprises:Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) from United States of America
General Motors (GM) from United States of America
Reynolds Metals from United States of America
Relevant government actors:United States Environmental Protection Agency , New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, U.S. Department of Justice Environment and Natural Resources Division
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:St. Regis Mohawk Tribe Environmental Division, St. Lawrence University, Clarkson University, Syracuse University, Cornell University and SUNY Albany
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Forms of mobilization:Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Development of a network/collective action
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Arguments for the rights of mother nature
Appeals/recourse to economic valuation of the environment
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Soil erosion, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion
Potential: Soil contamination
Health ImpactsPotential: Other environmental related diseases
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures
Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Criminalization of activists
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:While the Mohawks have won a court case to help with remediation, the contamination had been happening for decades before adequate time and attention had been paid to the environmental justice conflict. The St. Regis Mohawks have lost their main economic resources in the contaminated rivers that run directly through their land. They have been forced to change their culture and way of life and people have been harmed by pollutants including PCB. Currently, the conflict is attempting to be remediated through monetary pathways but they have suffered for a very long time.
Sources & Materials
Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

Case: Saint Lawrence River/Alcoa/GM, NY

Laws and Regulations/Legal Documents
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Environmental Protection Agency website
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Other comments:This is one of the top 40 influential environmental justice cases in the United States identified from a national survey of environmental activists, scholars and other leaders by graduate students at the University of Michigan.
Meta information
Contributor:Sara Orvis, [email protected], University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment
Last update18/08/2019
Conflict ID:897
Legal notice / Aviso legal
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