An Onondaga Lake Update

From the July-August 2012 PNL #816

Lindsay Speer

Onondaga Lake has seen remarkable improvement in the past few years. The water is clearer. There are no longer stinky algal blooms driving people away in the summer. Aquatic plants are thriving. Fish are returning in greater and greater numbers.  And the eagles have returned.

Plume of Solvay Waste into Onondaga Lake in 2004 from Wastebeds 1-8 at Lakeshore Point. Photo: James VoodrePlume of Solvay Waste into Onondaga Lake in 2004 from Wastebeds 1-8 at Lakeshore Point. Photo: James VoodreBut the lake is still polluted.

“We’re very concerned for the eagles,” explains Onondaga Nation Faithkeeper Oren Lyons. “The fish they are eating have mercury in them.”

This is emblematic of the Onondagas’ opinions about the lake cleanup efforts. They know that whatever happens from the ongoing work, the lake will not be clean. They know that there have been improvements. And they know the work will continue long after Honeywell has gone.

“We’ll still be here,” Lyons explains.

Bringing Back the Fish
The change in the lake that we have seen thus far has been driven by the upgrades completed at Syracuse’s main sewage treatment plant located on the shores of Onondaga Lake and the Save the Rain program, which is reducing the frequency of combined sewer overflows into Onondaga Creek. Less ammonia and phosphorous are flowing into the lake, reducing algal blooms and increasing dissolved oxygen.

“The remarkable recovery of the system is exemplified by the increased numbers and wider distribution of large brown trout, which are stocked in Ninemile Creek and now persist throughout most of the year in the lake,” wrote Onondaga County researchers in a 2011 report on Onondaga Lake’s fishery.

Onondaga Shoreline, a local group headed by DeWitt businessman Lloyd Withers, recently asked the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to reclassify Onondaga Lake as a ‘Trout Water.’  The goal is to ensure that the lake’s historic and recovering cold and cool water fishery is considered when planning further cleanup of Onondaga Lake.

It’s Not Enough
DEC is requiring Honeywell International and others to minimize the flow of pollutants into the lake from upland sites. These efforts include the barrier wall visible from I-690, installed because of an underground plume of petroleum products and other hazardous chemicals. These are preparing for the sediment dredging beginnig this summer and continuing through 2016. 

“In 2005 the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) said a full cleanup would remove 20 million cubic yards of polluted sediment. But the DEC only asked Honeywell to remove one tenth of that,” explained Joe Heath, the Onondaga Nation’s General Counsel. Only the top two feet of polluted sediment, on average, will be removed from the southern end of the lake and near the mouth of Ninemile Creek.

Also to be left in place are Wastebeds 1-8 along the western shore of Onondaga Lake, known as the “white cliffs,” as well as the NYS Fairgrounds parking lot. Covering 300 acres and rising over 60 feet in the air, these wastebeds cover what was once a wetland filled with black ash, red maple, and cedar trees. The State Fairgrounds were located where they are because they once had a good view of the Lake. Onondaga County proposes continuing the West Shore Trail along the top of the wastebeds, which the DEC has said is fine for human health… so long as you don’t leave the trail. Wouldn’t it be better for all of us if these wastebeds were removed?

Signs of Healing
On April 13, 2011 the Onondaga County Legislature passed a resolution noting its intent to give the area of shoreline near Carousel Mall known as “Murphy’s Island” (no, it’s not actually an island) to the Onondaga Nation. However, the land has to be cleaned up first  –  it too is polluted and part of the Superfund site.

The Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Rehabilitation (NRDAR) Trustee Council for Onondaga Lake is comprised of the Onondaga Nation, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the NYS DEC. NRDAR is the second part to Superfund. It requires Superfund polluters to compensate the public for past and future harm to environmental resources resulting from the release of hazardous substances by paying for environmental restoration projects related to the injured resources. Assessment of the harm is ongoing. Meanwhile, public meetings like those held this spring in conjunction with the Onondaga Lake Partnership are important to ensure the best possible restoration of the lake.

Looking at the Long Term
“Caps and barrier walls will eventually fail,” explains Tadodaho Sidney Hill. “We must not think only for our own generation, but for lasting solutions for future generations.” The Onondaga Nation remains committed to the goals expressed in The Onondaga Nation’s Vision for a Clean Onondaga Lake. “We will be sure that the Lake is clean enough to drink the water and eat the fish, and clean enough for children to play and swim in the water… On this we agree.”


Lindsay is a community organizer working on behalf of the Onondaga Nation.