Concerns about Onondaga Lake cleanup remain as a key phase nears completion

The dredging phase of the lake wrapped up in 2014, but as the process of capping the lake bottom nears completion, Onondaga Nation still has concerns about the cleanup.

The Onondaga Lake cleanup has moved on to the next phase in the project.

The dredging process – where tons of contaminated sediment from the lake bottom are moved to another location in the lake to ease coastal erosion, was completed in 2014. The work on capping the lake, which involves covering 579 acres of the lake's bottom with a layer of sand to keep the underlying mercury and other toxins in place, is still underway. However, not all parties are satisfied with the cleanup process.

Photo: JP Hadley

“The fundamental problem is that 80 to 90% of the toxins are being left in place in each of the various Superfund sites,” said Joe Heath, the Onondaga Nation’s general counsel. “And what this does is it just puts the problem off into the future, until those engineered solutions fail.” Superfund sites are areas where the government dumps toxic waste "hazardous to the environment," often with vague plans to eradicate the waste at some point in the future; Heath believes that not enough is being done to eradicate these toxins now, despite such elaborate cleanup efforts.

The Onondaga Nation has filed lawsuits against the State of New York, the City of Syracuse, Onondaga County and five corporations, including Honeywell, criticizing the extent of pollution and resulting cleanup of the lake. Heath said the Nation was not properly consulted on the remedies, and that the remedies themselves were insufficient.

The cleanup project now focuses on “shoreline plantings and habitat restoration,” according to the project’s official website. While cleanup is headed by Honeywell International Inc., the company responsible for the lake’s cleanup, over 700 volunteers have helped the Onondaga Lake Conservation Corps, said Chris Lajewski, the center director for the Montezuma Audubon Center.

“We’ve worked in over 70 acres of wetland and shoreline bringing back all these habitats for birds, other wildlife and people,” Lajewski said. “Over 80 species of birds have already come back into these areas, some of them are threatened with extinction here in New York State.”

In 1994, Onondaga Lake was added to the Superfund National Priorities List. As described above, the technical definition of a Superfund via the United States Department of Health and Human Services website is: “A Superfund site is any land in the United States that has been contaminated by hazardous waste and identified by the EPA as a candidate for cleanup because it poses a risk to human health and/or the environment.”

A long history with pollution

The history of the lake’s pollution and eventual cleanup goes back for over a century. The Solvay Process Company was the first company to secure permission to drill for salt near Onondaga Lake in 1883. The company’s primary output was soda ash, which it began producing it the following year. Much of the waste material from the production process was dumped into the lake.

It was not until 1907 that the New York State Attorney General threatened the company because of their excessive dumping of pollutants into the lake. After five companies consolidated into Allied Chemical and Dye Corporation in 1920, it began dumping chlorine into the lake, followed by mercury in 1950.

Twenty years later, a fishing ban was implemented on the lake because of the dangerous amount of mercury present. The United States Attorney General sued Allied Chemical and Dye Corporation to stop the flow of an estimated 25 pounds of mercury being dumped into the lake per day.

After a series of mergers and name changes, Honeywell ultimately agreed to a partial cleanup of the lake in 2005. Dredging and capping began in 2012, with dredging finishing November 2014 after removing 2.2 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment from the lake bottom. The capping process involved covering more than 450 acres of lake bottom with 2.6 million cubic yards of cap material. The cleanup effort is focused on the lake’s western shoreline and wetlands, where four of the nine Superfund sites are.

“They supervise us,” Victoria Streitfeld, Director of Communications at Honeywell said of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. “We do the work under their direction and supervision.”

Stephanie Webb, the citizen participation specialist for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, referred to documents created by the department when asked about the status of the project via email.

Those documents, “The State of Onondaga Lake” from 2010 and “Onondaga Lake Cleanup Progress” from March 2016, detail how the cleanup has evolved in the six years that elapsed between their publishing.

The cap on the lake bottom has failed at least three times since 2012, according to the March 2016 progress report. The report stated that “lake bottom slope and the properties of the soft sediments” led to the collapse. The collapse affects just 1.7% of the area to be capped, or 7.25 acres.

But, that information was not revealed to the public until a article in January 2016 highlighted information from a whistleblower, according to Heath.

“They tried to hide that information,” Heath said, referring to the cleanup effort. “The communication is totally inadequate.”

Moving forward

Both optimism and pessimism surround these current stages of the Onondaga Lake cleanup. The return of diverse species and continuing beautification will allow lake to become a useful public asset.

“We plan on connecting with hundreds more community members, planting native vegetation, removing invasive plants if they do happen to come into these newly restored habitats,” Lajewski said, “and surveying these habitats for birds and other wild life and ensuring that we’re getting the results that we had hoped for.”

However, concerns remain about the viability of the solutions put into place to protect the environment and human population.

“What’s particularly chilling is that we are now facing a new regime that intends to decimate our already weakened environmental laws and regulations,” Heath said, referencing President Donald Trump, his administration and his plans to slash the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget and repeal regulations. “What we’re going to have to suffer through, or what our children or grandchildren are going to have to suffer through is that 10, 20 years down the road it will be shown that these remedies have failed.”

The timeline information was adapted from Honeywell & Onondaga Lake: A Timeline on the Onondaga Nation website.

Post new comment

* Field must be completed for your comment to appear on The NewsHouse
The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.