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Environmental Response Team: Protecting Akwesasne for 10 Years

The Environmental Response Team (ERT) of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe’s Environment Division has been responding to accidental spills of hazardous materials in Akwesasne since 1993. Before then, the Environment Division had been responding to spills informally equipped only with shovels and kitty litter. Today the ERT is comprised of 22 staff members and outfitted with state of the art personal protective equipment (PPE), absorbent pads and booms, decontamination stations and monitoring equipment. In addition the ERT has at its disposal 2 response vehicles, the newest being a 1984 International Harvester bus that will be utilized to haul additional spill and decontamination equipment.

Funded yearly through an EPA CORE grant the ERT responds mostly to petroleum related product spills but has the capacity to respond to other materials as well. However, based on a 1999 highway study the products most likely to be encountered at a spill incident were petroleum products followed by caustics and acids. The ERT members are trained in 40-hour hazardous materials awareness and then are required to participate in 8-hour refresher courses yearly. One of the biggest challenges facing the ERT each year is turnover in ERT staff. Although it hasn’t been much of a problem this year the burden of training and re-training members can place a strain on available resources.

The ERT grew out of specific need in the community and now has blossomed into a well-trained sophisticated unit capable of responding to various accidental spills. However, from its humble beginnings to its current advanced state the most impressive piece of equipment according to Les Benedict, Assistant Director and longest member of the ERT it’s the people on the team that makes the ERT what it is. “Everybody on the team brings unique skills and abilities to the table. We try to utilize those skills to make the team as well-rounded as possible.” In fact the ERT is distinctive in that there aren’t many Native teams like this one. The only other Native response team that we know of is located at the Salt River Tribe in Arizona.

Although being an all -Native environmental response team might be considered the most unique part of the ERT, its the no-nonsense, safety approach for each incident which is the true common denominator of the team. Prevention, preparation and precaution are all terms that resonate throughout the team when either dealing with toxic substances or when encountering the more innocuous material of spilled cooking oil.

It is the help, hard work and dedication of the volunteer members of the ERT, whose very involvement is a testament to their high regard of the environment and human health. Working without “hazard pay” their only compensation is the knowledge that they where instrumental in preventing environmental damage to Mohawk land.