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Onondaga Lake sees cleaner, brighter future

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Onondaga Lake sits right next to downtown Syracuse, and after that city's factories poured countless toxic chemicals and sludge into the water over more than 100 years, Onondaga became known as the most polluted lake in America. But today the final stage of a cleanup is underway.

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Reported by

David Chanatry
Reporter, New York Reporting Project at Utica College

If you grew up near Syracuse and your thoughts happen to turn to Onondaga Lake, certain words might spring readily to mind: Words like dump, or putrid, or cesspool.

But that may not be the case for long. These days, hydraulic dredges are beginning to vacuum up a century’s worth of hazardous waste. Three are now working around the clock six days a week in the southwestern corner of the lake, one of the worst hotspots of contamination.

Syracuse native John McAuliffe is the project director for Honeywell, the company responsible for the cleanup. He says Onondaga is “certainly” one of the biggest superfund projects in the Northeast.

Over the next four years, Honeywell will spend more than $450 million removing mercury, PCBs and volatile organic compounds, the industrial waste produced by the Allied Chemical Company.

Only about 15 percent of the lake bottom will be dredged or capped with new material, but Steve Effler of the Upstate Freshwater Institute in Syracuse says that approach to the problem is scientifically reasonable. He says the real test will come in the next five years: “Will the mercury content of fish flesh drop? That’s really a lot of what the taret is here on this cleanup.”

But Onondaga hasn’t just been polluted by industry: For decades raw and partially treated sewage flowed into the lake.

Fixing this problem has been the other major part of Onondaga’s cleanup, to the tune of $600 million in taxpayer money. The big push came when Onondaga County upgraded its sewage treatment plant after being sued by the Atlantic States Legal Foundation.

That organization’s Sam Sage says the lawsuit was necessary because in that area, no one was pushing to for a cleanup. “Central New York is a water rich part of the world”, he says, “so there was never a demand that we need this lake in order to fish or swim or go boating, because we had the Finger Lakes, we had the Great Lakes like Ontario, we had rivers, we had streams.”

Heavy rains still send raw sewage overflowing into the lake. The county is now implementing a program to “save the rain” through projects like roof gardens and rain barrels with a goal of capturing 95 percent of runoff by 2018.

New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation says its ultimate goal is to make the lake swimmable and fishable. It’s not there yet: There are strict limits on the number of fish you can eat, and swimming is still banned, as it has been for almost 75 years.

Ken Lynch is overseeing the cleanup for the DEC. He says it’s time to start looking at the lake’s future, moving toward “handing the ball off to the community of saying ‘OK, what’s the future use of this lake? What do you want to see for projects along the lake’?

Some of the last visible reminders of the bad old days are the huge piles of white waste on the south shore, the byproduct of the production of soda ash, a chemical used in manufacturing. The DEC says or the most part they are not hazardous and while they will be studied there are currently no plans to remove them.

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