Onondaga Lake cleanup project begins after 15 years of planning

Syracuse companies begin four year process of dredging toxic waste from Onondaga Lake.

Before the dredging on Onondaga Lake began this past summer, Monday nights were bocce nights at the lake’s park. There was gossip, laughter and the clicks of metal hitting metal.  As soon as the wind blew, however, the air became pungent, giving the lake away. 

The stench made the bocce players’ noses wrinkle, but they kept playing. 

Far across on the west and southwest shores, the waters began to stir.

Photo: Gwendolyn Craig
Dredging barge on the western shore of Onondaga Lake.

The latest project in an over fifteen-year crusade to clean up one of the country’s most polluted lakes and Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund site began in late July.  Three dredges stationed in the water suck up the hazardous waste lingering on the lake bottom. 

Honeywell, the company in charge of the cleanup, said the dredges will work 24/7, except for during bad weather. 

But keeping that promise has been harder than anticipated.

Dredging stopped two weeks ago, and not because of snow.  The already smelly lake became even smellier.  It became so bad that residents living near the lake called and complained to Honeywell, worried that perhaps the smell was filled with toxic fumes.  While the Department of Environmental Conservation said that’s not the case, Honeywell stopped the dredging anyway, until measures can be put into place to decrease the pungency of the odor.

The estimated $451 million process is expected to take between four and four and a half years to clean up two million cubic yards of the lake bottom.  That is six percent of the lake. 

Honeywell and its subcontractors are also capping the dredged areas and some additional polluted sections with layers of clay.  The caps are supposed to keep mercury and other contaminants from mixing with the water.  This process is still continuing, despite the paused dredging. 

“We know what’s underneath is still a toxic nightmare,” said Onondaga Nation Tadodaho Sidney Hill.  “It’s just a cover up.  It’s not a clean up.  It’s a cover up.  We’ll always be battling this.  It’s Onondaga Lake.  It’s our lake.”

The Onondaga Nation has watched the body of water, which they consider the birthplace of their democracy, be polluted with mercury, PCBs and sewage.  They were disheartened when a judge approved Honeywell and the DEC’s decision to dredge the minimum required amount, rather than the maximum.  The maximum would have cost about $2.15 billion, and would have removed the majority of the hazardous waste. 

Since then, the Onondaga Nation has felt left out of the remediation process, and further distanced from their roots.

“We realize we can’t take everything out through dredging, but if they’d planned on taking at least 90 percent out, we believe that the lake could’ve healed itself in its own process,” said Tadodaho Hill. 

Many others hold a similar view, including secretary for the Community Participation Group for Onondaga Lake Bottom Remediation Program, Jack Ramsden.

“I’m not comfortable in saying I’m happy.  On the other hand, progress is being made.  It’s not the improvement we might ask for or did ask for, but it’s no doubt that it’s an achievement,” said Ramsden.

 “If you read what that 6 percent number translates to, it’s tons and tons of mercury,” said Diane Carlton of the DEC.  “It’s tons and tons of PCBs.  It’s an immense amount of terra that’s being moved, as evidence by the fact that it’s going to take four to 4 ½ years to remove it.”

So where does the toxic sludge go?

The contaminated sediments funnel through a piping system about 1¼ miles to a place called Wastebed 13 in Camillus.  There, the muck goes into geotubes, which are made of vinyl and polyurethane, and have holes to allow the lake water out. 

The water then goes through a treatment system before it is pumped to the Metro Group, Inc. water treatment plant. 

Meanwhile the sediments are piled into heavily lined tubes at the bottom of Wastebed 13.  Carlton said they are lined two or three times to prevent contaminants from getting into the soil.

“Here again the issue is, is capping the answer?” said Ramsden.  “That’s a legitimate concern.  Does it make sense?  Is it engineered properly?  I suspect the answer is yes.”

But Camillus residents, who have staunchly opposed the waste bed, are even more concerned because of the stench.  Since the dredging stopped two weeks ago, the smell has faded, and dredging resumed again last Thursday. However, the smell close to the lake still has the same strength as in the summer during those bocce nights.

Honeywell’s spokesperson, Craig Milburn, stated in an email that the project has provided many jobs for Central New York scientists, engineers and workers.  Honeywell is hiring as many local people as possible, emphasizing their connection to the lake and community.

“I think it’s wonderful,” Carlton said, before the odor became a problem with the dredging.  “The work that we’ve done has really started to change people’s opinions about what the lake can become.” 

She said that now there are 60 species of fish, when there were just six.  Save the Rain, a foundation group dedicated to reducing pollution in Onondaga Lake, held a Clean Water Fair on Sept. 22, where several fish from the lake were on display.  They are proof the lake is healing. 

 “We’ll come together and clean this lake up, and it will spread to the waters, all of the waters,” Tadodaho Hill said.  “That’s a dream, that’s a wish, a very hopeful way of looking at it.  We can never give that up, give that dream up for the next generations.”




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