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How US corporations poisoned this Indigenous community

These invisible chemicals changed the Mohawk way of life. They’re probably already in you, too.

Liz Scheltens is a senior editorial producer for the Vox video team.

In the 1950s, the US and Canada embarked on a massive project to widen the St. Lawrence River, transforming the region to facilitate commerce, attract industry, and boost both nations’ economies. But there was a third nation in the region whose people were not consulted, and whose lifestyle was completely transformed by the project: the Mohawk of Akwesasne.

The St. Lawrence River has been central to Mohawk culture in the region for thousands of years. The river’s fish form the central part of their diet. But for the Mohawk, the fish aren’t a “resource” to be used. They’re an equal partner in a relationship in which both humans and wildlife have sacred responsibilities to one another. These relationships are central to the Mohawk worldview, and they mirror similar ways of understanding the natural world in other Indigenous communities.

But the bid to lure industry to the region worked. Two major manufacturers built factories close to Akwesasne, and by the 1980s, the Mohawk learned that General Motors and Reynolds Metals had been poisoning the river for decades with cancer-causing chemicals called PCBs. Fish in the river were found to have extremely dangerous levels of PCBs. It presented the community with a devastating choice: continue to fish and risk health problems like cancer and thyroid disorders, or stop fishing and lose the connection with the river, and with their ancestors.

The full statement we received from Alcoa, owner of Reynolds Metals, is as follows:

Today, Reynolds Metals Company and the U.S. EPA continue to monitor the various remediation solutions related to the St. Lawrence River and the historical operations from Reynolds Metals Company near Massena. The remediation work was designed in 2000, after public input and consultation, to protect human health and the environment. The work included dredging and capping portions of the river.

In 2021, the U.S. EPA completed its fourth, five-year review of the remediation project. EPA confirmed that the remediation work is effective and that it continues to protect human health and the environment.

Alcoa Inc., the former parent company to Alcoa Corporation, acquired Reynolds Metals in 2000. In November of 2016, Alcoa Inc. separated into two companies, Arconic Inc. and Alcoa Corporation, and Reynolds was assigned to Alcoa Corporation.

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