Reflections on the Journey from Environmental Reciprocity
to Environmental Exploitation

After: Restoring Balance- Healing the Land and Waters"
By Pamela Bishop

The lecture "After: Restoring Balance- Healing the Land and Waters," on October 17, was the closing event of a two day series of reflections on environmental exploitation and reciprocity. It signified the conclusion of a narrative that had started with a lecture on the cultural ecology of the Onondaga homeland before contact, and continued with a day-long discussion over the environmental necessity for collaboration between the traditional and scientific.

Chris Amato, a distinguished environmental lawyer began the lecture by discussing the history of Onondaga Lake. The evolution of the lake from a pristine cold water fishery was a long process beginning with European encroachment, continued by the development of industry, when it became a dumping ground for sewage and waste. "We are now dealing with pollution at levels that boggle the imagination," said Amato "For a sense of magnitude, chemical benzene is just one of the known chemicals in the lake, this is a known human carcinogen, that can cause central nervous depression, fetal growth retardation, solid tumors in organs, erosion of bone marrow (etc.).... After the proposed Honeywell cleanup there will still be over 1,300 times the safe level left."

The current state of Onondaga Lake is only one aspect of a story about what has happened in New York. It is part of the story about what we have done to our environment as a country. Amato explained this as a symptom shift of the vanishing point of reference problem, where we have come to accept significant environmental pollution as the norm. "Hundreds of water bodies in New York state are impaired," said Amato "We have generations of kids growing up thinking this is normal. Which further removes us from the normal picture and skews our frame of reference. What is disturbing is that the Honeywell solution is an 'accepted approach,' we have become numb to the degree of pollution that we live with, we accept that we can't eat the fish of our lakes or drink the water."

Honeywell (the corporation which bought Allied Chemical and is now responsible for much of the cleanup of Onondaga Lake) and the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation calling their plan for dredging sediment and capping existing pollution as a "clean-up" is a symptom of how our frame of reference is skewed. This "solution" is based on the premise: pray it doesn't get out. Honeywell cannot guarantee that these caps will not fail, to guarantee would defy engineering rationale. "What we are doing, is dumping this problem into the laps of our children, and their children, and their children's children" said Amato "Two million cubic yards will be dredged, over 20 million will be left untouched."
This approach devised by Honeywell with the assistance of our environmental agencies, if re-inspected post "clean-up" would still land Onondaga Lake on the federal superfund list of hazardous waste sites. Importantly, nowhere in the paperwork can you find the goal of this "clean-up," there is no reference of when one can swim in the lake or drink from it, there is therefore no way to measure the success or failure of Honeywell's solution. There is no yardstick, except to say that it is "clean" when the money runs out.

"What can we do?" asked Amato "Stand up and be heard, this takes political will and a lot of money, but think of how much money Honeywell made in being able to dump its toxins into our lake. What we have to do is change the terms of debate. If we settle for less then we surrender our responsibility to future generations."

The next part of the lecture involved a restoration conversation between Amato; Emmanuel Carter, professor of Landscape Architecture at SUNY ESF; Bradley Powless, Onondaga Nation Chief; Ed Michalenko, director of the Onondaga Environmental Institute; Jeanne Shendandoah, Onondaga and environmental activist and Richard Smardon, chair of the Faculty of Envirnonmental Studies at SUNY ESF. The speakers discussed the challenge that Onondaga Lake poses to our community: to take ownership and responsibility for our environment. Amato began, "Are you going to enjoy experiencing the lake when you know that you are sitting on top of tons of capped toxic waste?"
Carter said that we need to consider Onondaga Lake as a reference point. In other words, we should want it to be a nurturing landscape for permanent residents, not as a place to just attract tourists. "Our landscape supports our value system," said Carter "You should be living in a place that is part of you, instead of a landscape that is a series of parcels that can be bought and sold. This should not be a one shot clean-up deal, it should be a lifetime commitment for those that go through this territory."

Carter continued, by illuminating the fact that Syracuse is already a plentiful region of not-for-profits, that stimulate the government by developing ideas. The problem is that their existence is a symptom of the government not doing its job; in other words, we are being let down by government decisions and the absence of our own citizenship. "There are around 120,000 tax payers in Onondaga County," said Carter "If each of them paid $50 a year we would have $6 million a year to go toward cleaning the lake and our environment. There is this idea that taxes should always be lower, in fact we ought to pay higher and get a better life from them."

Michalenko said that coldwater fish are an indicator of lake conditions. "I'm an eternal optimist," said Michalenko. "With some work, the lake can be a corridor of healthier conditions," because the fish are not stationary but migratory. When he surveyed the municipalities surrounding the lake Michalenko found that people are not as self-centered as one would expect. Instead, when asked what they would like to happen to the lake they say things like: "I never swim or eat the fish but I want the lake to be swimmable and the fish to be edible." Therefore the intrinsic value of the lake is important to the public.

"Catching a fish and putting it back into the lake is cruel," said Shendandoah "You have to also remember that people are in fact eating the fish, people that cannot economically sustain themselves." She continued by saying that, we should do whatever it takes to clean the lake, that a timeline for clean-up should not exist but instead a constant cleaning process should.

Powless added that, "We are Onondaga, we will forever be Onondaga, we know that we will be here. You cannot stop that the seven generations are coming, you must give thanks and provide a home for them. The circle keeps continuing, you must give thanks and share these thoughts with your relatives, that is what makes something sacred to you."

At the end of this two day series of inter-related lectures and events it is evident that more must be done for Onondaga Lake. A recognition of the past, collaboration between traditional and scientific perspectives, understanding and support of the public are all steps in the right direction. What is needed is activity, residents of the county and the Onondaga people need to join together in demanding reciprocity and stewardship. Until that point is reached the vanishing reference point problem, addressed by Amato, will continue to widen and separate us from our responsibility to ourselves, the Earth and future generations.

Pamela Bishop is an intern for Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation (NOON). Currently, she is pursuing a M.S. in Public Relations at the S.I.Newhouse School of Public Communications of Syracuse University. Previously she attended York University of Toronto, Canada where she attained a B.A. in Political Science.

For more information:
Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation, (315) 472-5478, noon@peacecouncil.net