Learning from our Success
Aggie Lane

Neighborhood resident and longtime activist with the Partnership for Onondaga Creek and local community gardens, Lula Donald addresses the crowd at a 2004 rally in Armory Square. Photo: unknown

Editor’s Note: This text was originally written as part of a successful application for an award from the Environmental Protection Agency.

An Inspiring and Unique Coalition: Atlantic States Legal Foundation, The Partnership for Onondaga Creek, The Onondaga Nation and Onondaga County Executive Joanne Mahoney

When the US district federal court ordered Onondaga County to devise a plan to reduce Syracuse’s combined sewer overflows (CSOs) to Onondaga Lake by way of Syracuse’s tributaries, this mundane issue became controversial. This past November, after 20 contentious years, the US district federal court approved major changes to Onondaga County’s CSO reduction plan. It allows Onondaga County to use CSO storage tanks and green infrastructure to slow down and absorb stormwater instead of building outdated, unhealthy chlorination/swirler sewage plants. This bold plan is thanks to a unique collaboration.

The new court ruling would not have happened without the hard work of three committed entities: Atlantic States Legal Foundation (ASLF), the Partnership for Onondaga Creek (POC), and the Onondaga Nation as well as the newly-elected Onondaga County Executive, Joanne Mahoney. This unlikely coalition of environmental activists and county government is a remarkable story. It is a lesson in participatory democracy: a rare instance of government asking and receiving help from its informed citizens. 

In 1988, ASLF successfully sued Onondaga County for violating the Clean Water Act by continuously polluting Onondaga Lake with discharges from Syracuse’s metropolitan wastewater treatment plant and Syracuse’s 63 CSOs. These sewer discharges and industrial pollution made Onondaga Lake one of the most polluted lakes in the country. The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation eventually joined ASLF’s suit. For the next 10 years, the three parties to the suit negotiated an amended consent judgment that included a CSO Long Term Control Plan (LTCP).  The plan stipulated that Onondaga County build five regional treatment facilities (RTFs), using swirler/chlorination technology, in-line storage and a limited amount of sewer separation. 

The first swirler treatment facility was a very small demonstration project, drawing little attention. The second swirler facility, known locally as the Midland Avenue sewage plant, would not be so innocuous. Onondaga County originally designed a football field-size sewage plant for construction in an economically struggling, African American neighborhood on Syracuse’s South Side. The two-block site was in a tightly knit community living in decent public housing (an apartment building and 28 townhouses) that had its own basketball court and greenspace.

Many in this community had suffered from past environmental injustices, beginning with urban renewal, the slicing of the city by the interstate highway I-81, repeated evictions for municipal projects, and the building of an industrial park alongside their community. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, this community battled Onondaga County over its garbage-burning steam plant proposal. Despite the South Side’s struggles with drugs, crime, vacant homes and absentee landlords, over the past twenty years the community has built many new homes.  

In 1999, at a public hearing for the Midland Avenue sewage plant, the county unveiled its plan, and residents expressed their anger at being once more displaced and dumped on. In 2000, that anger birthed the Partnership for Onondaga Creek. For the next nine years, this grassroots, un-staffed group did constant battle against the site and the plant’s swirler/chlorination technology. The struggle included continual protest, well-developed technical alternatives, a nine month-long negotiation, a Title VI claim (03R-04-R2) to the EPA, civil disobedience and a public awareness campaign.

The POC drew support from city residents from other neighborhoods, university students and faculty, especially the Syracuse University Public Interest Law Firm, and from groups like Sierra Club, Onondaga Environmental Institute, Syracuse Peace Council, NYPIRG, Student Environmental Action Coalition, Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Environmental Advocates of New York, Citizens’ Environmental Coalition and West Harlem Environmental Action. The POC also worked closely with the Onondaga Nation, a vigilant and consistent partner.

As early as 2000, the Nation’s legal counsel was speaking out against the Midland sewage plant. In 2002, the Nation negotiated alongside ASLF, the POC, and the City of Syracuse urging Onondaga County to replace its swirler/chlorination RTF with underground storage. In 2005, the Onondaga Nation filed a Land Rights Action in federal court responding to New York State’s violations of its eighteenth century treaties. The core of the Nation’s claim was its right to be environmental steward of its aboriginal territory. Among the many environmental wrongs targeted by the Land Rights Action was the proposed Midland sewage plant.

The POC, the Nation, and ASLF worked tirelessly to stop the building of the Midland plant and the remaining three RTFs. The work was a rare combination of education, public awareness, legal and civic activism. Much of the work centered on research and creating a technical proficiency that has been acknowledged by various Syracuse Post-Standard editorial boards, neighborhood groups, university professors, Syracuse’s city government, the NYSDEC, the EPA and politicians. 

Despite these efforts, in 2005 Onondaga County built the Midland Avenue sewage plant evicting 42 families. But in 2007 a political change would provide some justice. That year Joanne Mahoney, a former Syracuse City Common Councilor, was elected Onondaga County’s Executive. It was well known that Mahoney was not in favor of the RTFs because she had voiced her opposition to them during her years on the city council. Before her election as County Executive, Mahoney reached out to the POC and our allies. She asked questions and listened to scientists, activists and community residents. 

Within two months of her swearing-in, Mahoney put on hold the construction of the next sewage plant, slated for a thriving Syracuse downtown district. Working closely with ASLF, the POC and the Nation, she won a six-month stay by the court to generate an alternative plan. She included all three entities on the four committees she established: Policy, Green Infrastructure, Gray Infrastructure and Outreach. The committees formulated a new plan which was refined by Mahoney’s newly-hired engineering firm. The plan scrapped the three remaining RTFs and the huge pipeline to the Midland sewage plant in favor of underground storage and green infrastructure. Then, Mahoney’s staff worked with the other parties of the lawsuit, ASLF and the NYSDEC, to present a revised CSO Long Term Control Plan in federal court.

Rain gardens like this one in Skaneateles are part of the plan Mahoney’s committees put together to reduce harmful sewer runoff into Onondaga Lake tributaries without using swirler sewage plants. Photo: unknown

At the request of the federal judge, the Onondaga County Legislature had to approve the plan before taking further action. This they did with a unanimous vote on November 4, 2009. By the end of that month, the federal judge approved the changes.

The “greening” of Onondaga County’s CSO LTCP happened due to the persistent hard work and spirited cooperation of Atlantic States Legal Foundation, the Partnership for Onondaga Creek, and the Onondaga Nation coupled with the courage of this newly-elected County Executive. By partnering with these environmentalists who had opposed the original county plan for years, Mahoney bucked the system and brought innovation, environmental integrity and even a bit of environmental justice to Syracuse. This inspiring and unique coalition is a model of partnership and great organizing from which we can all learn.

The Partnership for Onondaga Creek meets the first Tuesday of each month (see community calendar on back page for details). They continue working with other local organizations, the city and the county to promote the use of green infrastructure, and have recently begun advocating for green job programs to include local community residents and small neighborhood businesses.

Aggie Lane has worked with the Partnership for Onondaga Creek since the very beginning of its work for environmental justice.