The tribal council said it doesn't condone what Thompson did but understands his aggravation. For his part, Thompson, who goes by the Indian name Kanietakeron, has renounced his affiliation with the tribe in court papers, saying he is "a true sovereign" who can claim the land under its original title, a claim that includes the GM site.
Altogether 82, or almost 5 percent, of federal Superfund sites designated for priority treatment nationally are classified as "Native American Interest," including Massena and four others in New York.
GM made aluminum cylinder heads here starting in 1958, polluting the land and water with PCBs, heavy metals and other toxics. It closed in 2009. The site was designated a federal Superfund priority in 1984, with contamination in two disposal areas, the industrial landfill and four lagoons.
The federal government says it has eliminated the "immediate exposure pathways" of contaminants leaking into the river and groundwater. After river dredging, groundwater containment and waste removal, the cleanup agreement calls for leaving the landfill as it is. Monitoring and other cleanup work continue.
"We believe that the 12-acre landfill has been contained and that it does not pose a threat to public health and the environment," said EPA's Enck.
But Dr. David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and Environment at the State University at Albany, said the landfill poses a health threat because of PCB air contamination.
"In fact landfills are not secure," Carpenter said. "PCBs volatilize and escape into the air. I'd be very much in favor of digging it up. It should be moved totally away from the reservation."
Enck said plans do call for the landfill to be moved 150 feet from the tribal border in 2014. Carpenter said the EPA has made real cleanup progress, but that would do more harm than good.
On Thompson's side of the fence, several houses on the reservation are a stone's throw from the landfill and along the river where people still live. The house where Thompson grew up is here at Raquette Point; Thompson and his wife moved out 24 years ago when they learned of the pollution.
Akwesasne also lies downstream and downwind from Reynolds and ALCOA aluminum factories that were also polluters. Ransom, the former chief, said fluoride from those factories made cattle sick.
Thompson believes cancer, diabetes, thyroid disease and other ailments have afflicted generations of people who lived on the reservation. While there are no definitive cancer studies proving the PCBs have caused illness at Akwesasne, Carpenter said recent research has shown a strong relationship between PCBs and low thyroid hormones, adult diabetes and heart disease.
Thompson says he was pushed to act partly because of his sister's kidney cancer and the liver cancer of a childhood friend, though neither illness is officially attributed to the pollution.
Neither the state health department nor St. Regis tribal officials have recent data on cancer cases in the region, spokesmen said.
Air and groundwater monitoring in the area continues, Jock said, and the tribe's environmental division plans to sample fish in the St. Lawrence and its tributaries this summer for PCBs and other contaminants, duplicating a major study in 1988 that found high levels of PCBs in fish.
"We expect that levels will be lower," Jock said. "But we aren't sure about how much or whether we're going to get to safe levels for Mohawks to consume."
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