AKWESASNE, N.Y. -- More than 40 Mohawks filed a class action lawsuit in
late November against General Motors Corp. and Alcoa Inc., who they say for
years have dumped polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, into the river that
flows through their territory.
The 44 named plaintiffs are all residents of Akwesasne, a reservation that
straddles the U.S.-Canada border in northern New York state. The men, women
and children named in the suit allege that they've suffered disease,
illness or other ailments caused primarily by consuming fish contaminated
"What we have learned in the past year and a half is that there is a public
health crisis up there," said Christopher Amato, a lawyer representing and
speaking on behalf of the Mohawk plaintiffs. "There are an enormous amount
of health problems and it's not simply a coincidence."
"The negligent dumping of PCBs by General Motors and Alcoa has created an
environmental and public health nightmare for people living at Akwesasne,"
said Donald Boyajian, lead counsel for the plaintiffs. "This lawsuit seeks
to force these companies to compensate the victims of their conduct."
The suit alleges that since as early as the 1960s, three different factory
sites dumped PCBs directly or indirectly into the St. Lawrence River, which
runs downstream from them and through the Akwesasne reservation.
GM has a plant in Massena, N.Y. which is used primarily for building engine
parts, according to the lawsuit.
Alcoa, an aluminum manufacturing company, has two factory sites in Massena
-- one of which was acquired when they bought out Reynolds Metal Co. in
According to the suit, both defendants have been dumping PCBs into the St.
Lawrence and surrounding waters for years. The Mohawks, it alleges, have
suffered in a variety of ways, from thyroid problems and cancer to learning
disabilities and reproductive problems. Diabetes is also a common disease
in Akwesasne and, according to the suit, can be linked to PCBs in some
"PCBs are listed by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency and the
International Agency for Research of Cancer as a probable human
carcinogen," reads the complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the
Northern District of New York. "This classification means that there is
sufficient evidence to show that PCBs cause cancer in animals and that
there is evidence that PCBs cause cancer in humans."
Some rare cancers, said Amato, are known to be caused by PCBs. Liver
cancer, for one, killed one Mohawk, who is represented by a family member
in the suit.
"There have been studies that have documented these health effects," said
Amato. "We will certainly be relying on those studies to prove our case."
The information in the complaint further claims PCBs cause changes in
hormonal levels, particularly estrogen, and that maternal exposure to PCBs
can allegedly lead to a decreased gestational age and reduced birth weight
of the infant.
"As a result of their exposure to PCBs, Mohawks residing at Akwesasne are
at an increased risk of a variety of adverse health effects associated with
such exposure," read the suit, which named dozens of such medical
conditions and problems.
"Some of the effects of PCBs are not always considered a health problem,"
said Amato, naming learning disabilities as one example. Because of this,
the actual number of cases of PCB damage in Akwesasne is unknown. The suit
welcomes additional plaintiffs to join at any time.
Most of the plaintiffs in the suit were exposed to PCBs by eating fish from
the local waters, said Amato. However, he said, studies have shown that
breast milk may become contaminated, affecting infants. The effects can
also be passed from mother to infant during pregnancy.
The plaintiffs are seeking compensatory and punitive damages, along with
the establishment of a trust fund to pay for any future medical costs
incurred by Mohawks who develop medical problems later on.
"Our view is that these companies need to be punished financially for the
health crisis they've created up there," said Amato. "I don't expect these
companies to do anything but fight, and we're prepared for a long battle."
Amato said he anticipates that the case could be in courts for years. The
first official appearance will be in March 2006, and further dates will be
set at that time.
Otie McKinley, a spokesman for the GM site at Massena, said the company has
just recently received a copy of the complaint and is reviewing it.
"I know we are in an ongoing remediation process that began in the 1980s,"
McKinley said, but he could not confirm nor deny if PCBs continue to be
released at the GM plant. The company expects to have more information
available in the near future.
Alcoa did not return calls for comment.