The Onondaga Lake Quagmire...The Saga Continues

By Don Hughes


Onondaga Lake, that much-abused body of water in our midst, has turned a corner. Over the course of the past two centuries human callousness transformed it from a relatively pristine lake supporting coldwater fish and unique inland salt marshes to a body of water degraded by filling of wetlands, dumping of industrial wastes, urban development and municipal sewage.

In recent years, this spiritual center of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy has indeed turned a corner. Oxygen levels are up. Water clarity is far better. Many fish species are thriving. Numerous problems remain, of course. The fish are contaminated with mercury and other toxic chemicals.

Numerous poisons still lurk in the sediments on the bottom of the lake.
Map: Don Hughes and Myrna Hall

Onondaga Lake is one of 1243 "Superfund" sites, among the most contaminated sites in the nation. Unfortunately, current plans will not provide the thorough cleanup which is called for by our Onondaga Nation neighbors.

I will provide a quick overview of some of the hazardous waste sites surrounding the lake, and what is being done-or not done- to clean them up. These satellite sites are considered "sub-sites" of the Lake Superfund site. (see map)

Honeywell Inc. Sites
(formerly Allied-Signal, Inc.)

1. LCP Bridge St.
Major Contaminants: mercury and PCBs in soils, sludges
Status: Honeywell performed a cleanup last year in which soils up to 8 feet below grade were dug up and treated on site to remove liquid mercury. PCB-contaminated soils were sent to a hazardous waste landfill off-site. However, many tons of mercury were left on-site in the deeper soils. Hopefully this will be contained by a slurry wall which was installed around the perimeter of the 19-acre site. Mercury-contaminated sediments and soils from other cleanup projects are being brought here. Ultimately the whole site is to be "capped" with thick plastic sheets and layers of soil.

2. Geddes Brook & Ninemile Creek
Major Contaminants: mercury, chlorinated benzenes, dioxins, others.
Status: Disagreements over appropriate cleanup goals have put this in regulatory limbo. Further testing will be required to sort this out. In the meantime, mercury and other pollutants continue to travel down the creek into the lake.

3. Semet Tar Beds
Major Contaminants: acidic (pH=1) tar-like waste containing naphthalene, benzene, toluene, and byproducts called diphenylethanes.
Status: Studies and proposals for remediation occurred for decades, before it fell under the Superfund umbrella. In 2003, Honeywell's plan to convert most of the waste material into driveway sealer was accepted by New York State. This idea came to an untimely end when it was discovered that the driveway sealer market could not absorb this much material. An alternative plan is being developed.

4. Former Willis Ave. Plant
Major Contaminants: liquid mercury, chlorinated benzenes, benzene and related solvents, dioxins. Status: As a stop gap measure, Honeywell is currently building a barrier wall to separate this site and the tar beds from Onondaga Lake, the idea being to stop contaminated groundwater and toxins from migrating under I-690 and into the lake. Options for actually cleaning up the Willis Ave. plant site are under investigation.

5. Harbor Brook / Wastebed B
Major Contaminants: naphthalene and other polyaromatic hydrocarbons, chlorinated benzenes.
Status: See description of barrier wall above. Options for actually cleaning up the site are under investigation (sound familiar?). Honeywell has completed numerous studies characterizing the contaminants in and around these sites. Remedial actions have included:
1. Cleanup of soils and construction of a slurry wall at the LCP plant.
2. Removal of mercury-contaminated sediments along the West Flume, which drains into Ninemile Creek.
3. Installation of a barrier wall between the lake and the former Willis Ave. plant and Tar Bed sites (in progress).
4. Construction of a groundwater treatment system to treat groundwater from various parts of the Superfund remediation.

Despite this progress, much remains to be done. Cleanup of the Tar Beds and Ninemile Creek is stalled. Ultimate cleanup of the Harbor Brook and Willis Ave. sites remains uncertain. And the big-ticket item-the dredging and capping of sediments in Onondaga Lake-is a project which seems in perpetual "design phase." The best thing for citizen activists to do is stay informed, and keep the pressure on all the parties, including New York State, US EPA and Honeywell, to create a long-lasting and proper solution.


Don, a longtime environmentalist and bike enthusiast, works as a scientist for the Onondaga Environmental Institute.