12:01am

Wed January 12, 2011
Around the Nation

Post-GM Model Envisioned For New York Town

In northern New York, General Motors and the federal government have the challenging task of cleaning up a toxic site at one of the auto giant's former plants.

Massena, N.Y., is receiving the largest chunk of a nearly $800 million settlement that the bankruptcy estate of GM -- known as "Old GM" -- must commit toward cleaning up its contaminated properties. The settlement is a condition of the federal government helping to give the auto giant new life.

Massena used to be a big factory town, home to Alcoa, Reynolds and GM plants. But aluminum operations downsized, and when GM closed its powertrain plant last year, 500 jobs were lost.

Massena's newly elected mayor, James Hidy, says Main Street used to be vibrant back in the 1970s, when he was an employee at the General Motors plant.

"I moved to Detroit, 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. We don't have the population we had anymore, and with that, we don't have the vibrant downtown and storefronts that we used to have," Hidy says.

A regional task force is charged with figuring out how the sparsely populated community can cope with the loss of GM's plant, one the area's biggest economic drivers.

"When you pick up the newspaper or you turn on the TV, and you see someone from GM with a big smile on their 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 Patrick Turbett, who heads that task force.

General Motors now makes headlines about public stock offerings and electric cars. Turbett's community watches all that from afar as they're stuck with Old GM -- officially named Motors Liquidation Company -- which was created from the bankruptcy restructuring to shed assets, including the former Massena plant.

The plant's Superfund designation means it has hazardous substances in the soil. Anne Kelly, who oversees the Massena property for the Environmental Protection Agency, says because of that and several other reasons, the building will be demolished.

"The facility is very outdated," Kelly says. At 50 years old, the building itself has become a hazard.

"Chemicals that have been used -- paints, mercury switches, asbestos -- there are a number of contaminants that are incidental to manufacturing that will be a waste stream from this facility," Kelly says.

Kelly says the demolition of the 800,000-square-foot building -- the size of a really big mall -- will take almost two years.

The Massena site is getting the largest share -- 15 percent -- of the $773 million trust fund. The rest of the money will go to more than a dozen states from the Eastern seaboard to the Midwest, as well as the St. Regis Mohawk tribal land, which butts up against the Massena property.

After the demolition is finished, the county will try to market the 270 acres.

But Mayor Hidy says he doesn't expect to land another big manufacturer that can bring 1,000 or 2,000 jobs.

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

That new chapter for Massena begins this month, when crews will begin scrubbing down the former GM plant to get rid of toxic dust in preparation for the demolition. The EPA says there will be enough money to clean up that site and others in the settlement. But just because those lands are restored doesn't mean all the environmental damage from former GM factories is resolved. The federal government still has roughly 45 unsettled claims of besmirched landscapes that could require cleanup. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.