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April 7, 2001

A Sick Tribe and a Dump as a Neighbor


Nicole Bengiveno/ The New York Times
Chief Paul Thompson of the Mohawks remembers the day 13 years ago when workers in protective suits, shown in above photograph through a magnifying glass, covered a toxic dump.
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Nicole Bengiveno/ The New York Times
Dr. Ben Kelly, chief physician at the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation, has seen an increase in the seriousness of illnesses suffered by people on the reservation who grew up with contaminated fish and water.
Nicole Bengiveno/ The New York Times
Chief Paul Thompson at the snow-covered mound.

ST. 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 for soup. 

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 allow that.

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 been done." 
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