This Deal Ain't Sweet

An Onondaga Creek Update
by Lindsay Speer

In his February 28 State of the City address Mayor Matt Driscoll emphasized his commitment to making Syracuse one of the "greenest regions in the country." He described his new environmental strategies, such as green technology and renewable energy investment. What was noticeably lacking was his commitment to his old environmental strategies, such as supporting the cleanup of Onondaga Creek in a fair, equitable and ecologically sound manner, and promoting it as a source of revitalization for downtown Syracuse.

Could this be because on Valentine's Day Driscoll made a "sweetheart deal" with County Executive Nick Pirro regarding Onondaga Creek? In exchange for money ostensibly to be invested in surrounding neighborhoods, the City would drop all lawsuits against the County, and the engineers would be able to build their regional treatment facilities (RTFs). The pay-off includes $3 million in mitigation money promised and then denied to the Southside because the Partnership for Onondaga Creek and the City of Syracuse protested the Midland RTF project.

The deal leaves Syracuse with three wastewater treatment facilities located in predominantly minority neighborhoods and one in the heart of the city's most economically- thriving areas. Untreated human waste will still end up in the creek from the Northside (where only floating debris are netted). The wastewater discharged to the creek will still contain phosphorus and ammonia. Moreover, chlorination of the RTF effluent will produce hazardous by-products.

The agreement may put a damper on the growing enthusiasm to revitalize the creek, as seen by the success of the Onondaga Creek Revitalization Plan project's 2006 Community Forums and the March 20 Stakeholder Meeting. Over 115 people, including businesspeople, lawyers, engineers, government representatives, students, residents, environmental advocates and scientists, met at 7:30 AM to discuss the future of Onondaga Creek. Many expressed belief that the cleanup and revitalization of Onondaga Creek could become a source of pride for the community.

At press time, the Syracuse Common Council h a d just received details of the Valentine's Day deal and rescheduled their study session. The Partnership for Onondaga Creek will present their analysis of the deal to the Common C o u n c i l i n hopes of convincing the City to better address the environmental and social needs of the community. The Partnership has been analyzing the situation for nearly a decade and will present their case study at Howard University's Environmental Justice conference in Washington, DC March 29 - 31.Entitled Environmental Racism in Syracuse, NY: A Case Study of Government's Failure to Protect an Endangered Waterway and a Neglected Community, this 20-page document is a must-read for Syracuse residents (available at: It is timely to note that in 2001 - 2002 the Partnership researched and proposed ecologically, socially and legally sound alternatives for the Midland RTF. The County rejected the proposals based on costs - they claimed their chlorine-based RTFs would cost $20 million less. At the time, the estimated costs were $55 million for the Midland RTF and $30 million for the Clinton (Armory Square Trolley Lot) RTF. By May 2006 the Midland project's actual costs had ballooned to $122 million. On March 14, 2007, the County announced the Clinton RTF is now expected to cost over $111 million! As POC member Louise Poindexter explained, "These cost overruns expose the lie the County has fed to the community about why they must do these band-aid sewage plants instead of doing it right." Don Hughes, scientist at the Onondaga Environmental Institute, put it succinctly: "If we want the creek to actually meet water quality standards, then the County's plan stinks."

A public Common Council session about the deal is expected by mid April. For more information, contact the Partnership: Aggie Lane, 478- 4571 or Louise Poindexter, 422-1673,

Do It Right!

Onondaga Creek is sacred to the people of the Onondaga Nation. In June 2002, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) removed five tributaries to Onondaga Lake, including Onondaga Creek, from New York's Impaired Waters List, even though none had attained acceptable water quality standards. In mid-January of 2007, after years of attempts to work with the DEC and the EPA to properly protect Onondaga Creek and the other tributaries, the Nation was forced to send the EPA a Letter of Intent to sue under the Clean Water Act (CWA).

The Nation wants the degraded condition of the Creek acknowledged, so that other aspects of the CWA will be triggered. Because the creek is impaired, the DEC must then set limits, called "total maximum daily loads" for the pollutants in the creek, as a basis for removing them. If these levels were properly set for the Creek, the County's current plans could be seriously challenged.

The EPA has responded to the Nation by scheduling a late March meeting to discuss the Creek and other tributaries.

Lindsay holds a B.S. in Natural Resources from Cornell University and has been professionally studying, educating and organizing around Onondaga Creek issues for over a year.