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Massena starts new chapter as old GM plant is set for demolition

The former General Motors plant in Massena, N.Y. is so laced with toxic substances, that it will be demolished.
Ryan Morden
The former General Motors plant in Massena, N.Y. is so laced with toxic substances, that it will be demolished.

There will be enough cash to clean up the environmental damage at a former General Motors site in northern New York.  But that doesn't mean all of the economic - or emotional - damage will also be repaired.

Cleanups in Massena, in northern New York, and Salina, near Syracuse (and at more than 80 other sites across the country), will be funded through a settlement that GM made with the Environmental Protection Agency.  

Or, more specifically, "Old GM."  That's the asset liquidation offshoot created from the ashes General Motors' bankruptcy.  Old GM has been ordered by the feds to put money aside for the environmental cleanup of several old contaminated factories, as a condition of the government bailing out the auto company.

But while the Feds take charge of the environmental fallout, it's up to the communities to reckon with the economic harm. 


Patrick Turbett heads a task force in the Massena region that's charged with figuring out how the area can cope with the loss of GM's powertrain plant, one of the area's biggest economic drivers. He sees General Motors making headlines about public stock offerings and electric cars - but his community is watching all that from afar. 

"When you pick up the newspaper or your turn on the TV and you see someone from GM with a big smile on their on the face patting themselves on the back on how well they're doing, and you're the person living in the community with the EPA superfund site and all your people laid off, it's a little hard to be as happy," says Turbett.

Massena's newly elected mayor, James Hidy, says the town used to be vibrant back in the '70s when he was an employee at the General Motors plant.

"I moved to Detroit," he says. "Transferred to Detroit, and moved back after 25 years and it's just not the town it was. Obviously General Motors has left. Everything downsized."

Massena used to be a big factory town, with plants for Alcoa, Reynolds, and GM. But the aluminum operations at Alcoa downsized, and when GM closed, 500 jobs were lost. Once Old GM and the EPA clean up the old factory, the county will try and market the property.

Hidy says he doesn't expect to land another big manufacturer, bringing 1,000 or 2,000 jobs.

"I look at it as a new chapter for Massena," he says. "Manufacturing as we knew it yesterday is just not here throughout the U.S."

That new chapter for Massena begins this month, when crews begin scrubbing down the former GM plant to get rid of toxic dust in preparation for the demolition.

But it's not the end of the story for GM, old or otherwise. The federal government still has roughly 45 unsettled claims of polluted landscapes that could eventually require clean up.

Innovation Trail alumnus Ryan Morden is originally from Seattle. He graduated from the University of Washington with a bachelor's in journalism, minoring in political science and Scandinavian studies. Morden was Morning Edition producer and reporter at WRVO before moving over to the Innovation Trail project. Before landing at WRVO, Morden covered the Washington State legislature as a correspondent for Northwest News Network (N3), a group of nine NPR affiliates in the northwest.
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