Onondaga Nation's Land Rights Action Corporate Defendants: A simple matter of justice

Onondaga Chief Bradley Powless overlooking Solvay. "The women of our community have decided that it is time to act. It is time to clean-up our mother." (Photo: Li-Hua Lan)

One of the goals of the Onondagas' Land Rights Action (LRA) filed earlier this year is environmental protection and recovery. The LRA states why: "[t]he Nation and its people have a unique spiritual, cultural, and historic relationship with the land, which is embodied in Gayanashagowa, the Great Law of Peace.…The people are one with the land, and consider themselves stewards of it. It is the duty of the Nation's leaders to work for a healing of this land, to protect it, and to pass it on to future generations."

It is for these reasons that the Nation named as defendants corporations that have had major negative environmental impacts in Central New York, and have seriously disrupted the Onondaga people's relationship with the land and waters. The Nation is seeking to join with its neighbors to hold these polluters accountable in spite of the frustratingly slow environmental regulatory activities of state and federal governments. "Through the LRA, the Nation wishes to increase public awareness of corporate pollution and environmental degradation, and provide assistance to all Central New York residents with their environmental concerns," said Joe Heath, attorney for the Onondaga Nation. The following are brief sketches of the corporations.

Honeywell International, Inc. is a multi-national, multi-billion dollar corporation with principal responsibility for the industrial contamination of Onondaga Lake. Honeywell's corporate lineage includes Solvay Process Company and Allied Chemical. For over 100 years, Honeywell's predecessors filled in extensive Onondaga lakeshore wetlands, covered wide expanses of lake bottom, and constructed huge artificial hills along the lake and tributaries with industrial wastes from soda ash production. One estimate puts the quantity of soda ash waste at up to 6 million pounds generated daily - from 1884 through 1986. At that rate, tens of billions of tons of waste would have been generated over the lifetime of soda ash production in Syracuse. For much of that time the waste was discharged directly into the lake.

The Solvay-Allied-Honeywell environmental legacy also includes contamination of the waters and sediments of the lake and tributaries, and the surrounding lands, with tens of tons of highly toxic and persistent chemicals including mercury, PCBs, chlorobenzenes, dioxins, and others. The corporation enjoyed untold cost savings through its free industrial discharges to Central New York lands and waters for nearly a century. Honeywell is the principal responsible party for contamination in the Onondaga Lake bottom Superfund site, and is party to other Superfund sites surrounding the lake.

This is particularly tragic in that the lake and the lands surrounding it have been a sacred place for the Onondagas, and all of the Haudenosaunee people, since many centuries prior to colonization by Europeans. It was on the shores of Onondaga Lake that the Peacemaker brought five regional warring nations together into a union based on principles of peace, forming the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Tadadaho Sid Hill, spiritual leader of the Haudenosaunee, referred to Onondaga Lake, one of the most polluted water bodies on the continent, as "our cathedral."

Clark Concrete Company, Inc. (and its affiliate Valley Realty Development Company, Inc.) is a principal supplier of concrete in Syracuse and Onondaga County. It operates the Tully gravel mine on the north face of the Tully Valley moraine, at the headwaters of Onondaga Creek. The creek is allegedly impacted by discharges from gravel wash ponds and dredging activities in sediment settling ponds. The physical integrity of the moraine is of great concern to the Onondaga Nation and the Town of Tully, who have consistently opposed the gravel mining operation. "The area is of extreme archeological and cultural sensitivity for the Onondaga Nation, yet the Nation was not consulted in the development of the mine," said Heath, "It was in the Tully Lakes area that the Peacemaker originated the Haudensosaunee system of condolence and the use of wampum for ceremony and to record history. Ancestral burial grounds are located in the vicinity of the Clark gravel mine operations near the headwaters of Onondaga Creek."

Hanson Aggregates North America is the third largest aggregate producer in the world, owns the Jamesville mine, which straddles the DeWitt-Manlius town line in an area that historically included plunge basin lakes, gorges, and unique geological features called "ice caves" that retained glacial snow during the summer. The geology of this area was once akin to that of Clark Reservation and Green Lakes State Parks, but has been all but obliterated by the mining activities of one of the largest open pit mines in New York State.

"Reclamation efforts have been negligible at the site, in spite of anticipated continuation of mining into the foreseeable future, which deeply concerns the Onondaga Nation," said Heath.

Trigen Syracuse Energy Corporation is an energy cogeneration plant, producing steam and electricity from coal-burning boilers for consumption principally by other local companies. The Trigen Syracuse plant generates its energy at the cost of heavy, and increasing, pollution emissions. Based on US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data, Environmental Defense's Scorecard website has ranked the total Onondaga County emissions (from all sources) the fourth heaviest among 56 New York counties, in terms of total environmental releases of chemicals that are listed on the EPA's Toxics Release Inventory (TRI). Within Onondaga County, Trigen Syracuse ranks second in total tonnage of TRI chemicals currently released, and first in Onondaga County in releases to the air (more than 3 times greater than the next closest air polluter, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Co.). Its total TRI air emissions increased 46% between 1998 and 2002.

Central New Yorkers have a responsibility to join with the Onondaga Nation to compel public institutions and elected officials to hold accountable those responsible for this environmental contamination. To help, contact Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation at noon@peacecouncil.net or 472-5478.

This article, which originally appeared in the October 2005 issue (#746) of the Peace Newsletter, was compiled with information from Attorney Joe Heath's office and www.scorecard.org.