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Power struggle sparks St. Regis Mohawk protest

By Gale Courey Toensing

Indian Country Today

AKWESASNE TERRITORY – The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe has written to Gov. David Paterson to protest a unilateral decision by the New York Power Authority to divert electrical power that was supposed to be set aside for the tribe’s use.

The NYPA announced plans to send 15 megawatts of electricity from a northern New York hydropower plant to Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island. Five of the megawatts were supposed to be set aside for the tribe, according to a St. Regis spokesman.

But the state says the agreement to set aside power for St. Regis was never formalized.

The tribal council learned about the plan to divert the 15 megawatts of electrical power in a Feb. 28 article published in a local newspaper, tribal spokesman David Staddon said.

A day earlier, Paterson had announced the NYPA agreement to allocate low cost electricity to Brookhaven. The laboratory is operated for the U.S. Department of Energy. The electricity will support the construction of a high intensity light beam project known as the National Synchrotron Light Source II. The NYPA is the largest nonfederal public power agency in the U.S.

The tribal council responded March 3 with its letter to Paterson.

“The action by NYPA is not a total surprise, but the lack of consultation with us is. As a neighbor, they should have had the courtesy to reach out to us before they went public with their announcement. That is shameful on their part and gross misrepresentation of the relationship described by NYPA President and CEO Richard Kessel when I met him at ALCOA in February,” Tribal Chief James W. Ransom wrote.

Issues surrounding the electric power diversion are not clear.

According to the tribe, the electric power “had previously been committed to the Akwesasne Territory in a 2002 relicensing agreement.”

But Michael Saltzman, a spokesman for the NYPA, said there is no such stipulation in the relicensing of the St. Lawrence-FDR Power Project in Massena, N.Y. issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2002.

“The FERC license does not require the nine megawatts be allocated to St. Regis,” he said, adding that Kessel “has offered to meet with the nation to discuss the issue.”

In an article in the Daily Courier-Observer, however, Kessel acknowledged that the tribe does have a power allocation, but has not been able to access it.

“There were a number of issues that were way outside of NYPA’s scope that made those megawatts not available. This is power that was set aside and not being used, and it was not likely to be used in the future. I’m not sure of the specifics, other than the fact that they were not able to be used and we wanted to be able to utilize them,” Kessel told the Massena newspaper.

But according to a statement issued by Paterson’s office, the power has been utilized.

“The power in question was identified to be used for the St. Regis Mohawks in a proposed settlement that was never approved by the state and federal legislatures. The power has been sold by NYPA into the wholesale power market since the power became available to NYPA in 2002,” the statement said.

The statement indicated that the allocation issue is tied up in a land claim case. “If a settlement is reached, and approved by the governor, state legislature and Congress, NYPA stands ready to meet all of its obligations in that settlement.”

The power plant is located on tribal aboriginal land on Barnhart’s Island on the St. Lawrence River about half a mile immediately to the west of the tribe’s reservation, Staddon said. The land is part of a pending tribal land claim.

“Barnhart’s Island was taken and what they’re offering in return is a very small portion of the island at Massena Point.”

Ironically, even though the hydro plant is in such close proximity to the reservation, the tribe operates its casino using generators – a lot of them, Staddon said.

“There’s not enough electricity supplied to the tribe.”

In January, St. Regis and National Grid signed cooperative and electrical service agreements that, according to Staddon, could eventually lead to the tribe establishing its own electric company.

Tribal officials maintained that the central issue concerning the allocation of the megawatts is one of protocol and consultation. In their letter to Paterson, tribal leaders reminded him that he had made a commitment to “forge a fundamentally different government-to-government relationship – one grounded in mutual respect and with common purpose.”

The tribal council also took the opportunity to express its frustration at the lack of progress in other areas of the tribal-state relationship, reminding the governor of his so far unfulfilled promise to meet with tribal officials to discuss tax issues, negotiate payments for casino regulatory fees, and make the transition from state police to tribal police oversight at the tribe’s casino.

“We have used a cooperative approach in becoming the economic engine for Northern New York,” Ransom wrote. “We have added hundreds of North Country jobs, purchased millions of dollars in goods and services from our neighbors and have contributed in excess of $35 million to the state in revenue sharing payments over the past four years. We know that these are difficult times and that many political pressures exist from many constituent groups. But that is no excuse to act in such a disrespectful and indifferent manner towards us.”

Staddon said the tribal council would welcome a meeting with the governor.

“This issue (of the electricity allocation) will be discussed when we meet with the governor.”

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