Toxic Tributaries to Onondaga Lake
Lindsay Speer

While the mainstream media reports on the "spectacular" progress in the cleanup of Onondaga Lake from the Metro sewage plant improvements, the cleanup of the toxic contaminants of the lake and the surrounding Superfund subsites have only begun. Our community has a choice: accept a less-polluted lake or continue to advocate for full clean up (see for background).

The latest chapter in this long-term effort involves the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation's (NYSDEC) proposed plan for cleaning up Geddes Brook and Ninemile Creek (GB/NMC). The Onondaga Nation continues to call for a full cleanup of the Lake and the various superfund sites affecting it. As neighbors of the Onondaga Nation and residents of Central New York, we join them in that call for the healing of our environment. DEC is accepting written comments until January 19, 2009. The documents can be found at

Location and History
Geddes Brook flows into Ninemile Creek, which flows into Onondaga Lake north of the State Fairgrounds. Ninemile contributes roughly 1/3 of the total water flow to the lake. From the 1920's to 1940's, Ninemile Creek was re-routed five times due to construction of various highways and wastebeds created by Allied Chemical.

Sources of contamination to the creek include the LCP Bridge Street plant, Matthews Avenue Landfill, Allied Chemical's Main Plant, and Wastebeds 1-8 and 9-15. LCP Bridge Street was the largest source of contamination. Mercury was discharged at ~20 lbs/day between 1946 and 1970. When Allied's (now Honeywell's) plants were operational, they discharged so much water that the water level in Geddes Brook and Ninemile Creek was much higher. For this reason, high levels of contamination have been found in floodplain soils as well as the creek sediments. Mercury, lead, arsenic, PCBs, dioxins, phenols, and other toxics are found throughout the site.

The Proposed Plan available for public comment at this time deals with only half of the GB/NMC site, from where Geddes Brook meets Ninemile Creek to the I-690 overpass and includes associated floodplains. Cleanup for the section downstream to the lake has yet to be proposed.

Alternative 3
Removes ~78% of mercury
Dredges 64,000 cubic yards
Extent of dredging determined by ease & feasibility.
Cost: ~$20 M
Annual operation & maintenance costs: ~$105,000
Completion Time: 2 years
In-stream cap required from Pumphouse Road canoe launch to I-690 bridge
Alternative 4
Removes ~100% of mercury
Dredges 73,000 cubic yards
Extent of dredging determined by contaminant concentrations.
Cost: ~$30 M
Annual operation & maintenance costs: ~$60,000
Completion Time: 3 years
Minor capping may be needed near bridge abutments.

Cleanup Alternatives
DEC's Geddes Brook/Ninemile Creek Proposed Plan describes four alternatives. Alternative 1 is "no action." Alternative 2 is minimal and not worth discussing. Alternative 3 is DEC's preferred remedy, and Alternative 4 removes all contamination.

DEC supports Alternative 3, believing the clean fill replacing the top few feet of contaminated soils and the in-stream cap effectively prevent exposure to the remaining contaminants. The Onondaga Nation disagrees, noting that Alternative 4 would remove all the contaminated soils and sediments, and require little capping, making it a better long-term solution.

Disposal of Dredged Sediments
All of the alternatives currently involve disposal of the dredged sediments and soils at the LCP Bridge Street site. DEC chooses disposal at LCP Bridge Street instead of at a hazardous waste landfill near Rochester to reduce cost and avoid 17,000 truck trips to Rochester. They argue that the means to deal with the waste already exist at LCP Bridge Street. However, this site is unlined. If the operational controls (a 70' deep clay wall and ongoing pumping and treatment of groundwater) at LCP Bridge St. ever fail, Geddes Brook/Ninemile Creek may be re-contaminated. Neither of these options are good; we need to ask if there are other options.

NYSDEC has again picked the less-than-clean remedy, hamstrung by the legacy of Reagan and Bush-era policies that benefit polluters. Alternative 3 saves Honeywell a year and 1/3 of the cost of a full cleanup, leaving contaminants in the ground and in the stream under caps. The dredged sediments will be added to the LCP Bridge Street site, essentially returning the pollutants back to their place of origin. There needs to be a public outcry advocating for the right thing to be done.

While DEC's preferred remedy is an improvement, it is simply not enough. Our grandchildren will have to deal with the contamination we allow to be left behind.

Lindsay, a lifelong Syracuse resident, is an environmental consultant and community organizer on behalf of the Onondaga Nation.