T. REGIS MOHAWK RESERVATION, N.Y.
— On this frigid day, on the land where his people have lived for centuries,
Paul Thompson is stomping through the snow, offering a tour of the landmarks
of his childhood.
Over there is the squiggly cove off the St. Lawrence River, where the
walleye pike would run upstream to spawn every April. Down there, on the
river bank, his folks would greet the fishermen, peer into their crates
and pick out the evening supper — perch, bass, or maybe a sturgeon head
And there, just beyond the reservation line, where General Motors
set up an engine parts factory in the 1950's, was a mound that the Thompson
kids foraged in. They plucked scrap metal and sold it in town for extra
cash. They burned the wood at home. Before there were water pipes in every
house, Mohawks from other parts of the reservation rowed down the river
to get oil drums, rinsed them and used them to collect rainwater for bathing.
"Recycling," Paul's sister, Marilyn, called it.
That heap turned out to be one of two General Motors waste sites filled
with toxic trash, including polychlorinated biphenyls, considered by federal
officials to be a probable carcinogen in humans and better known today
as PCB's. "That was a gold mine for us," Mr. Thompson said of the dump.
Today, he calls it "the bottomless pit."
Thirteen years ago, a crew of men, covered head to toe in white spaceman-
like suits, covered it with an impermeable sheath. Mr. Thompson, one of
the three tribal chiefs, still carries around pictures of that day. The
cap was meant as a temporary remedy. But it remains, a 35-foot-high mound
draped in snow.
The plant has been a federal Superfund site since 1984. Under orders
from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, General Motors dredged
30 tons of contaminated soil from the St. Lawrence and hauled toxic sludge
from lagoons on company property. Federal officials and tribal leaders
have urged families on the reservation not to eat the fish, drink the water
or breast-feed their babies, and the level of chemicals found in breast
milk has decreased in the last several years.
But both waste sites have lain fallow for a long time. And that inaction
has now led the state attorney general's office and the Mohawk tribe to
threaten to sue General Motors, on the grounds that the dumps "may present
an imminent and substantial endangerment" to the well-being of the river,
the endangered species that survive in it, and to the roughly 9,000 people
here, west of Plattsburgh on the Canadian border.
"They have basically flouted the law for 25 years," charged Christopher
A. Amato, deputy chief of the attorney general's environmental bureau.
"We were hoping that the E.P.A. would step in and put pressure on the company
to clean up quickly, but that unfortunately has not happened."
General Motors officials call the threatened lawsuit inappropriate and
meritless. The attorney general has no right to sue, they contend, because
G.M. has complied with the federal environmental agency's orders.
E.P.A. officials agree, although they acknowledge that health and environmental
risks still exist. "It's a high priority site," said Mary Helen Cervantes,
an agency spokeswoman. "We are eager to continue with the clean-up plan."
For nearly a decade, G.M. has wanted to seal the dumps permanently and
build a wall to prevent PCB's from further contaminating Indian land. Federal
officials have approved that plan, but to build the wall, General Motors
needs to get on the reservation, and, G.M. notes, the Mohawks will not
For their part, the Mohawks insist that the only acceptable solution
is to dig out the toxic sludge — from the reservation as well as the factory
site — and get rid of it forever.
This lengthy impasse — which the latest legal threat is aimed at breaking
— has underscored radically different ways of looking at the natural world.
"This is the only place we have, and we're going to be here forever," explained
Ken Jock, director of the tribe's environmental division. "Our teachers
have told us, when we make a decision we have to look at how it affects
the next seven generations. It's a different sense of time."
The Mohawk lifestyle has changed over the decades since the engine parts
plant and other factories were built next to the reservation. Hardly anyone
fishes anymore. If they eat fish, it is the packaged kind from the supermarket.
And no one lives off the land. The cucumbers and white corn that the Thompson
clan grew on their farm are long gone.
Paul Thompson, 56, owns a gas station now. There are a couple of pizzerias,
a truck stop called the Bear's Den and several convenience stores. Fast-food
spots and two mammoth supermarkets are just beyond the reservation.
For more than 25 years, the cove has been contaminated with PCB's. The
PCB's got in the fish. Nursing mothers passed on the chemicals to their
babies. The PCB's got inside the turtles and the peregrine falcons, and
inside the horses that grazed on the grass on the Thompsons' farm.
Scientists from the State University of New York at Albany, who have
conducted studies on the Mohawk families, recently concluded that those
who ate PCB-laced fish might be more likely to suffer from a thyroid disorder
characterized by fatigue, obesity and, in children, developmental delays.
The Environmental Protection Agency also says other studies show that these
chemicals can cause low birth weights and can compromise immune systems.
At the squat brick Indian health clinic here, the chief physician, Ben
Kelly, saw some two dozen patients one day: nearly a fourth had thyroid
disease, and 60 percent had diabetes, he said.
Indians nationwide have unusually high rates of diabetes. But here,
Dr. Kelly said, he has witnessed a new pattern in their illnesses. Fifteen
years ago, when he returned to the reservation from Tufts Medical School,
he saw the onset of diabetes in patients in their 50's and 60's. Today,
parents drag in their listless teenagers by the ears — only to find diabetes
in their blood. Asthma and hypertension are also common, he added.
It is not clear whether or to what extent any of these illnesses can
be traced to the PCB's. Diets have changed since he was a child here, Dr.
Kelly said, and like other Americans, the Mohawks are nowhere near as physically
active as they once were. "Times change, no doubt about it," Dr. Kelly
said. "And in this instance, not for the better."
The nurse practitioner at the clinic, Beverly Cook Jackson, takes a
larger, blunter view. "Losing our connection to the earth has had a negative
impact on our people, and that makes us sick," she said. "It's not just
PCB's. But I don't think it helps if you can't even drink your water."
Scientists have concluded that even low levels of PCB exposure here
could have caused more serious illnesses than previously detected. "That
small relationship we expect to see correlated with reduced I.Q., with
poor performance in school, with some abnormality in growth, particularly
sexual maturation, and increased susceptibility to certain chronic diseases
such as thyroid disease and diabetes," said Dr. David Carpenter, of the
public health school at the State University in Albany. "This has adversely
affected their health."
The E.P.A. is conducting its own national study of the health effects
of PCB's, including on the thyroid.
Today, Mr. Thompson has diabetes. Four of his five siblings have thyroid
disorders. His sister Marilyn had her thyroid gland removed when a tumor
was discovered there. All six of her children have asthma; two of them
have learning disabilities; another suffers from a thyroid condition; a
2-year-old granddaughter was born with a muscle disorder that has affected
her motor skills. One family member had 14 miscarriages.
Ms. Thompson, 48, finds it hardest to talk about how PCB's might have
seeped into her children's bodies. She nursed all but one of her children.
"I just thought my kids would be healthier," she said.
Does she think she could have passed on the poisons to her babies that
way? "Now I do," she said flatly. "Then I didn't."
From her window, Ms. Thompson can see the tower of the G.M. plant, just
beyond the snow. If she squints, she can almost picture the children as
they once foraged through the dump. "When they put the cap on it," she
said, "they had their men in white suits. White suits! Our kids are riding
on three-wheelers out there and they never even notified us. I ask myself
— Why? Because we are just native people? I look at that every day and
I get so angry."
A General Motors spokesman, Gerry Holmes, dismisses that notion, and
says the company wants to continue its cleanup. Ms. Cervantes, of the E.P.A.,
credits the company for the progress that has been made so far. "There's
absolutely work that needs to be done," she said, "and work that's already