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Working to Truly Clean Up Onondaga Lake
Onondaga Lake and the Land Rights Action

During the first Land Rights and Our Common Future talk at Syracuse Stage in 2006, Clanmother Audrey Shenandoah spoke about how she remembered when she was a young girl, the Onondaga Nation's Chiefs and Clanmothers discussing how to recover their lost lands, in the right way so that it would not hurt anyone, so that it would bring justice, not just for the people of the Onondaga Nation but for all creation. She is a great-great-grandmother now; the matter was carefully discussed for a very long time.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation came to the Onondaga Nation's Longhouse in the autumn of 2004. They did not come to ask the Chiefs' and Clanmothers' opinion about how to best restore Onondaga Lake; they came to give the Onondaga Nation the Proposed Remedial Action Plan for Onondaga Lake that was already formulated and due to be presented for public review in a few days. The DEC did not honor the Nation's request that the subsequent Record of Decision be delayed to allow for the Nation's input. This effectively prevented the Onondaga Nation from having any say in the design of the cleanup of the lake that bears the Nation's name and is sacred to them. Worse, the plan proposed by DEC left most of the toxic waste in the lake.

It was this action by the State that finally prompted the filing of the Land Rights Action in March of 2005. The Nation wanted its voice to be heard not only regarding the cleanup of Onondaga Lake, but on environmental decisions throughout their Aboriginal Territory. You can see this reflected in the first paragraph of the Land Rights Action:

The Onondaga people wish to bring about a healing between themselves and all others who live within the area of their aboriginal territory. This region has been the homeland of the Onondaga Nation since the dawn of time. The Nation and its people have a unique spiritual, cultural, and historic relationship with the land and its waters, which is embodied in Gayanashagowa, the Great Law of Peace. The people are one with the land, its waters and living things and consider themselves stewards of it. It is the duty of the Nation's leaders to work for a healing of this land, its waters and living things, to protect it, and to pass it on to future generations.

The Land Rights Action as a legal proceeding languishes in court awaiting the judge's decision on the State's Motion to Dismiss. However, efforts to ensure that New York State appropriately consults with the Onondaga Nation have been more successful.


Because the Onondaga Nation is a sovereign nation, it acts outside the usual public participation and outreach methods used by the NYSDEC. Instead it is engaged on a government-to-government consultation basis. Through the ongoing efforts of the Nation's legal team and due also to a shift in the New York State Government in the last few years, I am thankful to say that a better process is emerging. There is still room for improvement. However, the Nation is now engaged in more meaningful ways and we are hopeful that this new cooperative spirit will continue.

It is for this reason that, as neighbors and allies of the Onondaga Nation, we ask you to pay attention to what's happening with the remediation of Onondaga Lake. The Onondaga Nation is one voice; but the State is required to listen to its own people as well.

The State of Onondaga Lake

Many people, over the course of the last few years, have wondered about what's happening with the Onondaga Lake "cleanup". According to the news reports, the Lake's made a dramatic recovery - does that mean it's been cleaned up?

The answer, quite simply, is no.

The improvements seen over the past three years are directly attributable to the improvements in sewage treatment at Metro, which handles the sewage for all of the City of Syracuse. Metro drastically reduced the amount of phosphorous and nitrogen going into the lake, resulting in significant water clarity improvements and subsequent ecological benefits.

The toxics, however, remain in the lake, and the level of mercury in fish has tripled.

Honeywell, for the past three years, has been working on designing the details for remediation of Onondaga Lake. The company has also been attempting to stop the flow of contaminants from some of the upland sites to the Lake, primarily through the installation of barrier walls that stop the flow of groundwater - for now. The studies and actions that Honeywell produced, as well as its future plans, can all be found in the Remedial Design Work Plan for Onondaga Lake which is currently out for public comment.

What little dredging will occur to remove toxics in the Lake - will not begin until 2012.

Quite simply, the current plan is not adequate for future generations to be able to drink the water of Onondaga Lake, eat its fish, or swim safely in it.

However, the current plan is the current plan, and the DEC is not likely to seriously reconsider it until five years after it's been completed, when we find out that the remedy has failed.

Getting Informed and Involved

In the meantime, the Citizen Participation Plan provides for the creation of Community Participation Working Groups to be more intimately involved in the design of the remedy, hopefully allowing for more oversight, understanding, and public criticism when necessary. As it is said, "the devil's in the details", and the CPWGs will be looking at those details. I'd love to know who's interested in participating in these groups, so we can keep each other educated about what's going on.

It is strongly suggested to read the Remedial Design Work Plan for Onondaga Lake - it provides a good summary about what's been happening and where they're going.

What's New

The Proposed Remedy for the section of Ninemile Creek from Geddes Brook to I-690, and the Proposed Response Action for Geddes Brook were released to the public today.

For Ninemile Creek,

Good environmental decision-making depends on an engaged public. Participating in the process is important in healing the relationship between ourselves and the Lake. There will many opportunities to comment on various plans for the lake. Do it! You do not have to be a scientist -- DEC and Honeywell bear the responsibility of explaining their plans in ways that people can understand. If something doesn't make sense, comment on it, question it.

The extent to which Onondaga Lake will be cleaned up depends on our ability to advocate for the Lake. Onondaga Lake cannot speak for itself.