It’s Not Over Yet!
An Update on the Midland Avenue Sewage Plant Controversy

by Aggie Lane

Since 1998 community activists (mainly the Partnership for Onondaga Creek and Syracuse United Neighbors) have struggled against Onondaga County’s proposed Midland Avenue sewage treatment plant, a plant slated for a low-income Southside residential neighborhood. We didn’t accept that this plant was “a done deal.” We weren’t daunted by the fact that a federal court order specified sewage plants for the cleanup of Onondaga Lake.

We believe that these plants are a short-sighted approach to the combined sewer overflow (CSO) problem which affects the water quality of Onondaga Creek and Harbor Brook, besides Onondaga Lake. This overflow problem stems from combining sanitary waste and stormwater in the same pipe. We believe the long-term goal of any CSO solution must be zero overflows. We believe that sewage treatment plants do not belong in residential neighborhoods.

Besides protesting the proposed Midland Avenue sewage plant, the Partnership for Onondaga Creek researched other CSO abatement alternatives based on these two premises. Through our research and persistence, we helped bring about the first negotiations, and hopefully not the last.

From December 2001 to August 2002 the county, city, Onondaga Nation, Atlantic States Legal Foundation and Partnership for Onondaga Creek tried to resolve the Midland Avenue sewage plant controversy. In those eight months the parties, with the help of consulting engineers, crafted two underground storage alternatives to the proposed sewage plant. Just as it looked like there might be consensus among the parties, the negotiations ended abruptly — in an impasse and in silence.
In November 2002, Federal Judge McAvoy gave the county a green light to seize city land for Lake cleanup projects. Soon after this, the county announced it would take city land at Oxford-Blaine streets to build a smaller Midland Avenue sewage plant, but still a sewage plant. Annually, this plant would dump 77 million gallons of partially treated combined sewage using a chlorine-based disinfection process into Onondaga Creek. This effluent is harmful to aquatic life. Then, a few months later the county announced that it would try and make the plant less offensive by buying land in order to push the sewage plant 160 feet back from local homes. Given that the city and the Partnership had accepted the underground storage alternatives to the sewage plant, this unilateral approach has only fueled the controversy.

So now in response to the county’s decision to go ahead with plans to build this sewage plant instead of underground storage, we say, “It is NOT over yet!” Here are some the ways that the struggle continues for a socially just and environmentally sound solution to the CSO problem:

• The mayor is appealing Judge McAvoy’s decision. It is critical that the city fight for its sovereignty and its ability to define land use. The Partnership thanks everyone who called the mayor’s office urging him to file an appeal.

• In July the Partnership for Onondaga Creek’s negotiating team met with the coordinator of New York State’s Department of Conservation (NYSDEC) environmental justice office. We discussed the state’s new environmental justice policy and the rights of protected populations under that policy. The proposed sewage plants along Onondaga Creek (Midland Avenue and Armory Square) and along Harbor Brook (two sites TBA) are slated for protected neighborhoods, as defined by income and ethnicity

• In July the county submitted the plan for the smaller sewage plant for the Southside to the NYSDEC for approval. If the NYSDEC approves the county’s plan, citizens can challenge the use of any federal dollars earmarked for the project. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prevents the federal government from funding projects that have a “disparate effect” on protected populations. The county proposes to fund a significant portion of the construction of the Midland Avenue sewage plant with federal dollars.

• At an August press conference the Partnership called for city-wide negotiations based on the following points:

1. The county maintains that since it can build the smaller sewage plant for $20 million less, the underground storage options, favored by the Partnership and its allies, are not fiscally responsible. What doesn’t make sense is that the 2000 county legislature authorized $75 million for the construction of Midland CSO project and the underground storage options come in under that $75 million. These options pay the ratepayer back over time because the underground storage options are much cheaper to operate than sewage plants.
But the Partnership, taking the county at its word that it needed an additional $20 million to construct underground storage, used Freedom of Information laws to determine whether the county even tried to find more non-local monies for the construction of underground storage. It appears that the county did not make any effort to secure either state or federal funds.

2. The Partnership and Syracuse United Neighbors have investigated creative ways to fund/build underground storage on the Southside. One possibility is to enlist the Army Corps of Engineers and their federal dollars to help. Another is to apply for State grants offered for CSO abatement. Both would close the $20 million dollar gap and not burden the local ratepayer.

3. The Partnership has read the facilities plans for the remaining CSO projects slated for the Armory Square area and for the Westside (Harbor Brook). We are convinced that there are cost-effective non-chlorine CSO solutions for those areas too. The county claims that if it allows an underground storage option for the Southside, it MIGHT not have enough money or conveyance capacity to offer the underground storage to Armory Square and Harbor Brook. The county contends that these areas would be forced to have sewage plants. This is just doublespeak — for its own reasons, the county only wants to site sewage plants and doesn’t want to champion anything else.

The Partnership believes citywide negotiations would stop the county’s divide and conquer tactics, i.e. pitting Armory Square and Westside neighborhoods against the Southside. The Partnership says that the best way to a solution is to talk rather than litigate. The Partnership calls for the following steps:

1. Put all the CSO projects and their budgets on the table before all the affected neighborhoods, the city and relevant parties to the federal court order (the NYSDEC, the county and Atlantic States Legal Foundation).

2. Let the city’s independent engineering consultant and the county’s engineering firms present socially just and environmentally friendly options to the neighborhoods alongside the proposed sewage plants.

3. Provide mitigation- i.e. amenities for the affected communities to offset disruption - after the CSO abatement projects are selected. Due to the disruptive nature of all these projects, mitigation should be offered to all affected communities, not just to the neighborhoods that play ball with the county. This past winter, the county announced that it was pulling mitigation money off the table for the Midland Avenue project.

As we struggle for a socially just and environmentally sound technology, local environmentalists remind us that both Onondaga Creek and Onondaga Lake are jewels needing restoration and protection. A grassroots group, Canopy, is raising awareness about the huge greenspace potential inherent in Onondaga Creek. Join us, local activists and environmentalists, in the struggle for inclusion in the decisions that affect our neighborhoods, our waterways and our greenspaces. To get involved call Aggie Lane, 478-4571.

So it’s not over yet!

Aggie lives two blocks from the proposed Midland Avenue sewage plant. She’s a member of Canopy and the Partnership for Onondaga Creek. For more information or to get involved, contact her at aggielane@a-znet.com.