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Part of the 7.2 mile contaminated stretch of the Grasse. Photo: David Sommerstein
Part of the 7.2 mile contaminated stretch of the Grasse. Photo: David Sommerstein

Alcoa commits to 900 jobs in Massena; Grasse cleanup still in flux

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The company that built Massena will keep its plants open there for at least another 30 years.

Alcoa announced Saturday it will invest $42 million to modernize its East plant and build a new smelting the line. The company will also guarantee at least 900 jobs. In return, Alcoa will get low cost electricity from the hydropower dam on the St. Lawrence River.

The deal hinges on how the Environmental Protection Agency decides to clean up PCBs Alcoa and Reynolds dumped in the Grasse River decades ago.

David Sommerstein joined Martha Foley for more on the deal.

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David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

Martha Foley: David, this is big news for Massena and much of St. Lawrence County, and it’s been a long time coming.

David Sommerstein: Yes, it has. 900 jobs is a big deal in the North Country. Alcoa is the largest private sector employer north of Syracuse.

Back in 2000 and 2001, this deal was far from a sure thing. The New York Power Authority was negotiating with the federal government to run the massive Moses-Saunders dam across the St. Lawrence for another 50 years. And one of the big issues for people in St. Lawrence County, some of whom had lost land when the waters rose up behind the dam in the 1950s, was how can the local area benefit?

And one way was for NYPA to set aside 480 megawatts, or about 60 percent of its electricity, for Alcoa so the company wouldn’t take its aluminum production overseas as it had with many other American plants over the decades.

I spoke Saturday with Ernie LaBaff, president emeritus of the Aluminum, Brick, and Glassworkers International Union. He says around that time, Alcoa nearly walked away. "At one point they had said they were basically going to close the plant," says LaBaff, "and because we were able to convince the company and the Power Authority that it was a good work force, that they would do whatever they had to do to keep the jobs, the Power Authority gave the Alcoa East plant a seven million dollar loan, which is, in my opinion, why we’re still alive today."

MF: This is a huge boost for Massena, which has suffered some pretty grim news lately.

DS: Yes, last week there was a drive-by shooting related to an attempted kidnapping, which engendered a six-hour stand-off with police. It all exposed how much Massena is hurting. The village chief of police admitted that there’s a big drug problem in Massena, involving both outside players coming in and locals.

Then there’s the fact that General Motors shuttered several years ago, putting about 250 people out of work. When you consider that more than 7,000 people used to work at Alcoa, GM, and Reynolds in the 1950s and ‘60s, it’s been tough run for Massena.

This announcement means some security. Alcoa will invest $600 million in the plants over the 30 years and commit to 900 jobs. More than 1,100 work at Alcoa now. So this is very welcome news for Massena.

MF: One thing left hanging is that Alcoa is still waiting for the EPA to rule on its plan to clean up the Grasse River from PCBs. How does that fit in?

DS: That is the last thing out of place. Alcoa has proposed a $245 million cleanup plan. But the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, which is just downriver and is most affected by the toxic chemicals Alcoa and Reynolds dumped in the river decades ago, has insisted on a more stringent plan that could cost more than a billion dollars. The EPA is weighing which would satisfy its requirements for a clean-up.

That could be the hangup here. Alcoa has said its commitment is contingent on a quick resolution from the EPA. Senator Chuck Schumer has in the past asked the EPA to approve the less expensive plan. He’s coming to Massena today, presumably to put pressure on the EPA.

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