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The former General Motors site in Massena today. Photo: RACER Trust
The former General Motors site in Massena today. Photo: RACER Trust

Massena GM redevelopers "confident" of sale

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The biggest cleanup in the country of former General Motors property is underway in Massena. Crews are removing more than 100,000 tons of concrete and soil contaminated by toxic PCB oils.

The cleanup won't be finished for another three years. But the federally appointed trust that owns the property is already bullish on selling it.

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In the center of this picture, you can see the trenches dug to remove the tunnels and contaminated sediment below. [courtesy RACER Trust]<br />

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The hulking gray factory by the St. Lawrence River where thousands of Massenans once worked is gone now, demolished last year along with its water tower. Brendan Mullen is in charge of the cleanup project for the RACER trust, an entity established to clean up and redevelop more than 60 sites the federal government acquired when it bailed out General Motors in 2009. That’s the same year the Massena plant closed for good, putting 500 people out of work.

He says it looks like a "really flat" 20 acre surface. "Essentially, for anyone that has been there before, it’s a stark contrast to the building that used to dominate the site."

Mullen says right now, crews are digging out concrete slabs and tunnels that were under the factory floor and coated in dangerous chemicals. 

"There definitely was residue of PCBs on the tunnel floors and two feet up on the walls."

PCBs were used as a coolant before they were banned in the 1970s for causing cancer, thyroid, and neurological problems.

Mullen says crews are also removing contaminated soil – 25 feet down in some places - and testing it daily with an onsite technician with the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has to sign off on the cleanup.

Even as all this is going on, one of Mullen’s partners, Bruce Rasher, is trying to pull off what many in Massena would consider a minor miracle. "I’m confident", he says, "that we will attract a buyer that will find this site absolutely perfect for their plans to expand capacity and create employment for the Massena area."

Rasher has already sold 18 former GM sites as the RACER Trust’s redevelopment manager. To market Massena, he recently gathered up more than 30 Canadian industrialists on a bus tour for a captive audience. "They had to listen to us or get off the bus and walk home. For some of them, this opportunity had not been on their radar screen before that day."

Rasher says Massena has a lot going for it, especially to Canadian automotive, aerospace, and defense manufacturers – a trained labor force, easy road, rail, and Seaway access, all right next to a hydropower dam and the bridge to Canada. "I don’t consider it a tough sell at all", he says.

The tougher road may be getting it ready. Massena got the most money for remediation of any former GM property—$121 million. The RACER Trust believes that’s sufficient. But cleanup manager Brendan Mullen says they’ve already removed 30 percent more toxic material than they expected.

I asked Mullen whether the money would stretch to complete the job: "I would honestly say I would not be able to answer that question until we’re done. Right now, sitting here today, I would say yes."

Mullen says he hopes to finish the cleanup by the end of 2015 or the beginning of 2016.

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