What's Salt Got to Do With It?

How Tully Brine Mines Hurt Our Water, Land, and Communities

From the Nov/Dec 2019 PNL #869

By Joe Heath, Alma Lowry, Adelaide Rosa, and Hilary-Anne Coppola

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The authors work in collaboration at the Heath Law Office.



A Tully Valley mudboil. Photo: unknown



Our community knows Onondaga Lake is the most polluted lake in the US. This is a current reality caused by corporate greed and capitalist values which endanger human health. Lake protectors struggle to hold Honeywell and Onondaga County responsible for necessary toxin remediation and protections in and around the lake. In addition, the local environmental destruction goes beyond the lake and Syracuse.


Besides poisoning the lake, Solvay Process and Allied Chemicals (the industrial predecessors now known as Honeywell) destroyed water systems and land structures in the Tully Valley and north toward Syracuse by brine mining. Brine mines inject water into underground rock salt to bring up as a liquid brine solution. Salt mines operated in Tully Valley for almost a century as “wild brining”. Wild brining means no effort to track, control, or provide structural support during mining. The international solution mining industry knew by the early 1900's that wild brining is unsafe and causes sinkholes, ground fissures, and landslides. While controlled brining removes 10-15% of rock salt, in some Tully Valley sites up to 75% of salt formations were dissolved. The empty space under the valley floor is the volume of 35 Carrier Domes. 


The catastrophic effects of Tully Valley brining are numerous: sinkholes throughout the valley, hillside fissures, land subsidence, collapses underground, salt intruding into well water, and silt-and-saline mudboils in and along Onondaga Creek. The surface damage allows excess water to enter the groundwater system: Land fractures create channels for surface water to invade aquifers and for previously separated aquifers to mix, which makes the system more unstable. 


In addition, mining records indicate that 40-60% of brine created was lost in the Tully Valley groundwater system. As a result of all these forms of damage, the Tully Valley aquifer is more pressurized. The groundwater pushes to the surface at weak spots in the valley floor four miles downstream from the brine mining area, bringing salt and sediment. These surface eruptions are called the Tully Valley Mudboils (TVMs).


The first written record of a TVM is in an 1899 newspaper article. Since news organizations strive to report new news, this suggests that TVMs did not occur before brining began a decade earlier. There is no written or oral history showing TVMs existed before then, either. 


A study by The Chazen Companies, a nationally recognized engineering company, links brine mining to the mudboils. By the 1950s, TVMs reduced Onondaga Creek’s water clarity. In the 1990s, shortly after brine mining ended, TVMs became exponentially more active; because brine is no longer removed, additional pressure in the water system is not relieved. Also, since water from precipitation enters the groundwater and dissolves rock salt, wild brining still occurs. At their worst, TVMs dumped 30 tons of salty sediment into Onondaga Creek daily. The TVMs now release 5 to 15 tons each day.


Onondaga Nation citizens used Onondaga Creek continuously until the effects of brine mining completely destroyed the water quality. When brine mining ended and subsequent increased TVM activity caused drastic environmental degradation, the Onondaga people had to abandon their daily use of the creek. The Onondaga live with the theft of the lake (meaning a separation from sacred ceremony sites as well as a loss of food, medicine, and other natural resources), land, and also their freshwater stream, a major food source on the small area they now occupy. The Nation’s leaders are mandated by the Haudenosaunee Great Law of Peace to be stewards of the lake and protect it and all forms of wildlife for future generations. The actions of companies like Honeywell and government agencies interfere with this stewardship responsibility. 


The damage caused by TVMs is undeniable. Before brine mining, the Tully Valley watershed was a stable stream valley which fed Onondaga Creek. The creek ran clear and supported a healthy population of cool and cold water fish, including trout. Now the water is muddy brown and fish are scarce. The saline and silt regurgitated by TVMs create a layer of quicksand-like sediment over the floodplain habitat near the creek, oversaturate wetlands, and cause tree die-off. Farm land is slowly collapsing into the void created when silt is brought to the surface and enters Onondaga Creek. Downstream, silt clogs parts of the creek in Syracuse, increasing flood risk to the Southside community; yet another infrastructure failing that negatively impacts predominantly Black communities in Syracuse- 1400 Southside homes were forced to have flood insurance. The silt then dumps into Onondaga Lake, and the Inner Harbor must be dredged.


If TVM activity is allowed to continue, the lake may lose depth. Onondaga Lake is historically a deep lake with seasonal turnover of water layers in a dynamic system. If the lake becomes too shallow, its overall temperature will increase, the water layers will stop mixing, eutrophication will overload the water with nutrients, and more algae blooms will occur. Why the county administration wants to invest in a beach on the lakeshore, given the work needed to heal our water and land, defies reason.


There are no easy fixes and solutions are costly. Proposals include filling fissures and sinkholes and pumping water from the aquifer before it erupts via mudboils. Some “end-of-pipe” solutions attempt to keep TVM sediment from the creek, but these have failed. Another complication is a new group of active TVMs within Onondaga Creek. Honeywell (formerly Solvay Process/Allied Chemical) owns much of the land destroyed by brine mining and is responsible for environmental restoration of this area. Unjustly, Honeywell denies the connection between its wildly irresponsible brine mining to the mudboils, land collapses, sinkholes, and damaged ecosystems. 


There are many ways to fight locally for environmental justice. Here are only 3:

-Follow indigenous leaders. Native land and water protectors have the ecological knowledge and wisdom for best practice environmental conservation and remediation. The greater Syracuse area is fortunate that the Onondaga Nation maintain their sovereignty and their stewardship efforts deserve support. Check out their website: www.onondaganation.org.

-Join a local action group. A Better Future for Onondaga Lake is resisting the county's swimming beach proposal. The lake area is currently a closed industrial landfill and a beach could endanger human health. (Contact Marianna Kaufmann: marianna.kaufman@gmail.com)

-Facilitate education and understanding of these issues. The mudboils affect Syracuse and Onondaga County residents as well as the Onondaga Nation. Check out Gwendolyn Cate's mudboil feature on the Onondaga Nation Youtube channel. Are you an educator who values introducing students to local issues? Want to host a speaker at your library, historical association, etc.? Joe Heath has a thorough presentation on TVM's. (Contact Heath Law Office.)