"Underground Storage For Midland!"

Aggie Lane

This past August the Partnership for Onondaga Creek along with the City of Syracuse united behind the cry, "Underground Storage for Midland." After eight months of difficult negotiating, a cost-effective environmentally-sound alternative to the county's proposed Midland Avenue Sewage Treatment Plant on Syracuse's Southside, a.k.a. the Regional Treatment Facility (RTF), emerged.

This alternative addresses several issues. It stores the combined sewage and storm water underground, which alleviates the stigma associated with above-ground neighborhood sewage projects. The county's RTF, on the other hand, imposes an above-ground sewage plant on a low-income residential neighborhood made up primarily of people of color. The Partnership views this as environmental racism.

The alternative also addresses watershed issues: after a storm it would send the stored combined sewage to the Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment plant for full treatment. On the other hand, up to ten times a year, the RTF would discharge partially treated combined sewage into Onondaga Creek and Lake.

In November 2001 the federal court instructed Onondaga County, the city and other stakeholders to negotiate the contentious issue of the proposed RTF. The other stakeholders were the Onondaga Nation, the Atlantic States Legal Foundation, the Partnership for Onondaga Creek (POC) and the state's Department of Environmental Conservation. The DEC served as the facilitator and the approving agency of the negotiated options. Our POC negotiating team was made up mainly of women of color from the Southside. Our involvement moved the discussion away from mere "mitigation" toward a respectful and environmentally-sound proposal.

During the negotiations it became apparent that the county's engineering firms were deeply invested in the RTF. At the Partnership's request the city hired Ensource, an engineering consultant. In negotiations the POC asked that underground storage options be seriously considered. The county's and city's engineering consultants independently crafted underground storage designs and then argued their concepts line-by-line until they reached agreement.

By July there were four cost-effective (within the money bonded by the county legislature to build the proposed Midland Avenue RTF), DEC-approvable options on the table: two based on above-ground RTFs and two on underground storage tanks.

In August the county presented the long-term financial picture for each option by combining construction and operation and maintenance costs. The mayor's representative, City Operations Chief Vito Sciscioli challenged the accounting method and insisted on a straight-forward calculation of the actual burden to the ratepayer. It turned out that the debt service for the higher construction costs of the underground storage options balanced the higher annual operating costs of the RTF options. RTFs are cheaper to build, but underground storage tanks are cheaper to run.

In August when Mayor Matt Driscoll realized that there was a cost-effective, environmentally-sound solution, he invited the county to shake hands on underground storage. Matt even offered the county two million dollars and the land needed for the Midland Avenue project. But County Executive Nick Pirro stalled, saying he couldn't make a decision now because the county might need extra construction funds for other planned but not yet designed Lake cleanup projects, such as the one in Armory Square, near downtown Syracuse. Since the county has been giving Lake cleanup projects to favored engineering firms without a bidding process, this sudden fiscal caution felt disingenuous.

In early September, angered at Nick's tactics, some Southsiders, along with Syracuse United Neighbors, went to his house and office to demand a response. He refused to talk to them.

Over the past two months the Partnership has heard about a closed-door meeting between city councilors and county legislators and rumors of possible deals. The Partnership feels cut out of the process, and on October 21 went to the Common Council to protest this exclusion.

The Partnership now has a new ally, the Armory Square Association. On October 30 the Association wrote a letter to both Nick and Matt demanding to be part of all decisions affecting their neighborhood. They also said that the Partnership should be at the table with them, since the county is linking the Midland Avenue project to the Armory Square project.

Heartened by Armory Square Association's stance, the Partnership urges concerned city and county residents to speak up NOW for an environmentally-sound solution and against environmental racism (see box). Say "No to Sewage Treatment Plants in Residential Neighborhoods and Yes to Underground Storage!"

Call/write: your county legislator at

County Legislature _ 435-2070 _ 421 Montgomery St., Syracuse, 13202

Dale Sweetland, President, County Legislature _ 683-5823 (eve), 683-5413 (day) _ 8305 Route 80, Fabius, 13063

Terry Pickard, Chair, County Public Works _ 682-2005 (eve), 474-6448 (day) _ 7844 Cahill Rd., Manlius, 13104

Nick Pirro, County Executive _ 435-3516 (day) _ 421 Montgomery St., Syracuse, 13202

Sample message: As a ratepayer in Onondaga County's consolidated sewer district, I urge the county to build cost-effective underground storage tanks rather than sewage treatment plants in city neighborhoods. Fund only respectful and environmentally-sound sewage projects!

Aggie lives two blocks from the proposed sewage plant. She was on the Partnership's negotiating team. For information about the Partnership, call 478-4571.