Cleaning Up Environmental Legacies
by Joe Heath

The debate over the extent of damage done to Onondaga Lake by toxic pollutants has been
Onondaga Nation Environmental and Land Rights Action Defendants and Superfund Sites in Aboriginal Territory.
Map: The Kenerson Group
waged in local papers throughout recent months. We've heard the absurd claim that the lake is "half-way cleaned up," and that because cold-water fish are seasonally returning to the lake, pollution is no longer a problem. This is simply not true. There are still hundreds of thousands of pounds of deadly poisons like mercury, PCBs, and dioxins on the lake bottom. Additionally, each day dozens of pounds of these toxins leach into the lake from nine surrounding superfund sites.

The Peacemaker instructed the Haudenosaunee to make every decision on behalf of the seventh generation to come - to have compassion and love for those future generations. We will not be compassionate if we allow this "clean-up" plan for Onondaga Lake to occur. The proposed plan will leave thousands of pounds of pollutants in the lake - pollutants that our children, their children, and generations to come will be burdened with. This is why the lake must be cleaned up completely, and now.

The Onondaga Nation understands that while improvements have been made with the upgrades at the county's sewage plant, there is still a long way to go to properly correct the chemical stew left in the lake bottom by a century of corporate pollution.

The Nation also understands that all communities have inherited environmental problems that must be addressed, and that the Nation itself is not exempt. The Nation's leaders have been actively addressing their territory's environmental inheritance in real and effective ways, and urge city, county, state, and federal leaders to do the same.

Some of the environmental legacies the Nation has dealt with include:

Toxic waste dumps. Over the past twenty years, the Nation has worked to successfully clean up hundreds of barrels of toxic wastes which had been dumped on one site by outsiders who had paid someone off to accept this cheap disposal. This same individual also was paid to accept hundreds of cubic yards of medical waste, which were illegally dumped at a site nearby. This site has also been completely cleaned up, after two local hospitals accepted their responsibilities and cleaned up their mess.

Sewage. The Nation decided to pay significantly extra for an "artificial wetland" system to handle sewage from its state-of-the-art lacrosse and hockey arena, rather than merely connect to the county sewage system. One motivation for this was the Nation's continuing problems with the county's plans to build above-ground sewage treatment plants in Syracuse's Midland neighborhood and Armory Square. The plants will be blights on these neighborhoods and will routinely dump sewage and toxic chemicals into Onondaga Creek.

Landfill. The Nation has worked to close its former landfill, by, along with other measures, instituting an extensive recycling program.

Gasoline leaks. In the 1980s,several individuals opened gas stations on the Nation, in defiance of Nation laws. One of these stations was responsible for gasoline leaking into the ground. The Nation closed down all the unauthorized gas stations and worked to clean up the spill.

When the Onondaga are able to take care of their issues, everyone benefits. Neighbors in Nedrow and Syracuse benefit when dangerous medical wastes are no longer able to contaminate groundwater, or when open trash burning is no longer tolerated at the Nation. Likewise, when other local governments conclude that dumping wastes into Onondaga Creek is unsafe at any level, or that cleaning up the lake is not an option but a necessity, everyone benefits.

Unfortunately, the County is stubbornly pushing ahead with 50-year-old technology to deal with the inadequacies of the current 100-year-old sewage system. The swirler plants, one currently being built on Midland Avenue and another planned in Armory Square, will routinely discharge human wastes and dangerous chemicals into the creek. Without a clean creek, the Onondaga cannot carry on the way of life of their parents' or grandparents' generation, a way of life that relied on fishing and used the creek as a food and medicine source. Without a clean creek, residents of Syracuse lose a beautiful natural resource that could be an outdoor classroom for our children, or a source of food and water that all could depend on.

The Nation's land rights action specifically calls for a healing of the land, waters and air in Central New York and a healing of all people here, so this will be a better and more healthy area for our children and grandchildren. But this will not happen unless we all take responsibility in dealing with the environmental legacies handed down to us.

Joe is General Counsel for the Onondaga Nation.