The Story of an Injured Lake
by Katie Nadeau

A wastebed along the shoreline of Onondaga Lake (facing southeast), including rotting remnants of a pier which had been built to try to keep the wastebed material corralled. Photo: Ed Michalenko, Onondaga Environmental Institute,2002

For hundreds of years before European intervention, the Onondaga people lived on the shores of Onondaga Lake and fished in its waters.

Centuries ago, the Peacemaker brought the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk Nations together on the shores of Onondaga Lake. At the lakeshore, these warring nations accepted the message of peace, laid down their arms, and formed the Haudenosaunee Confederacy - the first representative democracy in the West. The lake became a sacred place, one that must be cared for and respected.

The Onondagas were good stewards of the lake until New York, in defiance of federal law, took control of it and the surrounding areas.

Onondaga Lake's Industrial Era
In 1884, the Solvay Process Company set up its soda ash manufacturing plant at Onondaga Lake. At first, Solvay dumped its industrial byproducts directly into the lake. For every kilogram of soda ash produced, Solvay discharged 1.5 kilograms of waste, either directly into the lake, or into wastebeds on the lakeshore. In 1920, the Solvay Process Company merged with four other companies to become Allied Chemical and Dye Corporation. Over the years, Allied Chemical and Dye Corporation changed its name to Allied Corporation, and through more mergers became AlliedSignal.

Over the next century, manufacturing operations increased at Onondaga Lake to include chemicals like caustic soda, hydrogen peroxide, chlorine, and bleach. With this diversification came expansion. Allied built more plants to produce more chemicals, and increased the size of factory sites and wastebeds to hold the increased waste. In the late 1980s, chemical production at the lake ceased, due in large part to a changing economy.

In 1999, AlliedSignal merged with Honeywell International to form a global technology corporation with $26 billion in annual revenues. Although AlliedSignal was the larger partner in the merger, the new company kept the Honeywell name, in part to escape the legacy of chemical industry attached to the AlliedSignal name. Honeywell is responsible for dismantling the former AlliedSignal production facilities and cleaning up the polluted sites.

The Polluted Legacy of Onondaga Lake
Industrial pollution has severely damaged Onondaga Lake - so much so that local residents assume that it is the most polluted lake in the United States.
In its current state, the lake itself is harmful to human health and the environment. The lake contains dangerous levels of mercury, a potent neurotoxin, along with unsafe levels of other heavy metals and toxic industrial chemicals. Elevated levels of some of these contaminants extend to a depth of at least 25 feet in lake-bottom sediments.

Each of the chemicals taken individually is harmful. Combined, they create a toxic stew whose effects may never be fully understood.

In addition to toxic pollutants, Onondaga Lake struggles with very high nutrient levels. Nutrients promote the growth of algae, a water plant that drains the lake of oxygen. Without oxygen, fish and other life cannot survive. For many years ammonia and phosphorus were released into the lake water from Metro (Syracuse's main sewage treatment plant) and from sewage overflows. Onondaga Lake's cold-water fishery has all but disappeared as a result.
Recent improvements to Metro and certain modifications in the city's sewer system have decreased the amount of nutrients in the lake, allowing for the partial comeback of certain types of fish. But more progress must be made before Onondaga Lake's fish can thrive.

What's Wrong With the NYS "Cleanup Plan"?
The plan agreed to by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), Honeywell, and the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) calls for dredging some lake-bottom sediments, "capping" some sediments (placing a layer of sand on top of them), and constructing an underground wall around part of the southwest end of the lake. Additionally, the plan calls for the cleanup of nine upland sites, all of which continue to pollute the lake.

Since NY and Honeywell released their Onondaga Lake "cleanup plan" in the summer of 2005, the Onondaga Nation has vociferously opposed it. Numerous engineers and scientists have shown that the plan will not be protective of human health or the environment, and that even after the "cleanup" the lake will still be polluted enough to qualify as a toxic waste site. Unfortunately, NYSDEC and USEPA refuse to meaningfully consult with the Onondaga Nation as required by federal law, and all of the Nation's concerns - backed by experts in the field - have fallen on deaf ears.

Moving Forward
The Onondaga Nation will continue to speak as stewards of the land, and work for the complete cleanup and restoration of Onondaga Lake and areas throughout the historic territory. To learn more about the Onondaga Nation's ties to the lake, and the lake's contamination, visit To read the Onondaga Lake "cleanup plan," visit projects/ondlake.


Katie works with Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation.