We Need a Better Future for Onondaga Lake

From the March/April 2016

by Lindsay Speer

In the next few years, many of the legally required remedies at Onondaga Lake will be wrapping up. However, the common-sense goals articulated by both the Onondaga Nation and the Clean Water Act—being able to drink the water, eat the fish, and swim in the lake—are still far out of reach. Onondaga Lake needs us.


Credit: Beehive Collective

Protectors of Onondaga Lake

Onondaga Lake is our responsibility. What would it look like if we were as passionate about protecting and restoring Onondaga Lake as those involved with We Are Seneca Lake (see page 4)? Are residents of Central New York any less deserving of a healthy lake than residents of the Finger Lakes? To create change, we have to first envision what we want. The Onondaga Nation has started this work for us, with their Vision for a Clean Onondaga Lake (see onondaganation.org/land-rights/onondaga-nations-vision-for-a-clean-onondaga-lake).
Being protectors of Onondaga Lake starts with educating ourselves about what’s been done, what’s being left for future generations to deal with, and what others are planning.

Onondaga County’s upgrades to its sewage system have resulted in dramatically less bacteria, nitrogen and phosphorus going into the lake. The result is fewer algae blooms and higher levels of oxygen, allowing more fish to survive. Water clarity has also dramatically increased, in part due to the reduced nutrients, and in part due to the arrival of zebra mussels that filter huge amounts of water as they feed. Onondaga Lake is improving, but we should question those who rush to call the lake “clean.”

Honeywell is spending millions to encourage us to not notice the industrial pollution they’re leaving behind when their “remedy” is “complete.” The more they can convince the public the lake is “restored,” the better able they are to diminish their legal liability for the historical and future loss of use of the lake. Keep this in mind when viewing their slick public relations campaigns.

More waste needs to be removed

Honeywell is leaving over 9.5 million cubic yards of waste on the lake bottom. These wastes include mercury, dioxins, furans, hexachlorobenzene, toluene, xylene, PCBs, and petroleum products that were dumped directly in the lake over the course of the last century. Only the top 6.5 feet (on average) were dredged in the recent “cleanup.” Some areas were capped with layers of sand while others were not capped at all, relying on sediment from Onondaga Creek to “naturally” cover up the pollution. Honeywell is leaving our community with a hazardous waste landfill at the bottom of the lake, one that cannot be easily monitored or repaired.

When the “cleanup” plans were announced in 2005, the Onondaga Nation and its scientists pointed out that this design dooms the lake to a future of pollution. Mercury and other heavy metals do not biodegrade—they will always be at the bottom of the lake. Further, they predicted the cap would fail, and where it would do so. And they were right.

We only know about the cap failure because the Onondaga Nation’s legal team found information years later and submitted a Freedom of Information Act request. Nearly four years after the first of the three known failures, this information finally became public knowledge on January 28, 2016.
It leaves us with many questions. Why wasn’t the public told of this significant failure of the “remedy”? How can we expect the cap to maintain its integrity on top of a “black goo, the consistency of mayo,” as workers describe the waste? And how will we know when it fails again? The NY Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), which has gotten cozy with Honeywell over the years while supposedly looking out for the interests of the public, needs to require more waste to be removed. When the cap fails, the remedy fails.

Will we ever be able to eat the fish?

The primary way humans are exposed to the toxins in the bottom of the lake is through eating the fish. When the cap fails, mercury and other pollutants become accessible to the organisms fish eat, thereby becoming part of the food chain. If we are to be left with a capped toxic waste landfill in the lake’s bottom, there must be regular, independent monitoring and greater transparency—we need to know when the cap fails again. We need to know when the barrier wall fails, when the groundwater pumping and treatment facilities that must operate in perpetuity fail, so we can demand accountability from Honeywell.
The mercury levels in the fish are still too high for anyone to eat, although adult men may eat one meal of certain kinds of fish once a month. But we are getting mixed messages. Eager to encourage more tourism, Onondaga County promotes sport-fishing on Onondaga Lake. There are no signs informing people to not eat the fish. As a result, more and more people are being observed fishing with buckets to take the fish home. And of course, eagles can’t read.

Is it a park or a wastebed?

Another place to be wary of exposure to toxins is on Wastebeds 1–8, now home to the new section of the West Shore Trail and the Amphitheater. Onondaga County and the DEC allowed for only six inches of mulch to cover the waste in places where they do not expect people to go—such as wooded areas. Has anyone in the county government ever been to an outdoor concert? People go in the woods all the time. Have you ever tried to keep children on a path? If it’s not safe to go off the trail, there shouldn’t be a trail there yet.
Further, a short split-rail fence is the only deterrent between the “lawn” seating at the amphitheater and a large open space that entices people to play frisbee—which happens to be the Crucible landfill area, an area which has had no further remediation. Onondaga County needs to stop putting people at risk. More waste needs to be removed.

Onondaga Lake needs more advocates

The Peace Council’s Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation (NOON) led the charge against the amphitheater last year only to lose by one vote. However, there is much we can still do. We are building a movement of advocates for the lake, developing creative ways to share what we know and demand a better future for Onondaga Lake. Follow A Better Future for Onondaga Lake and NOON on Facebook and by e-mail to stay informed, and watch for a forthcoming petition. (To sign up for NOON’s low volume e-announcement list, go to peacecouncil.net/stay-in-touch.)
As elders of many traditions teach us, we are here on earth to be in relationship with each other and the plants, animals, trees, birds and waters that sustain and support life. Onondaga Lake needs us to pay attention, to engage with it in safe ways, to listen to what it needs. Walk the trails. Go out on a boat. Sit and listen. Go to meetings like the Onondaga Lake Watershed Partnership (olwp.org), and ask hard questions. Observe what’s going on—and share your observations with friends, family, and with A Better Future for Onondaga Lake.
Onondaga County and Honeywell have had control over the messaging and plans for the future of Onondaga Lake for too long. It is time for all of us to renew our relationship with Onondaga Lake, and each other. It is our responsibility.

Lindsay is the Director of Creating Change Counseling and a longtime member of Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation. She recently returned home to Syracuse to continue her work for environmental justice after achieving her Masters of Environmental Law and Policy at Vermont Law School. Follow her on Twitter @careoftheearth.