Reasserting Sovereignty: Onondaga Lake

From the March 2014 PNL #832

by Joe Heath

If you’ve been reading the newspaper headlines these days, everything seems rosy at Onondaga Lake. Some of the mercury and other hazardous chemicals are being dredged from the Lake; the Loop the Lake trail is moving forward (often right on top of industrial wastes); and an ambitious City-led Inner Harbor revitalization project has now been joined by an even more ambitious State-funded amphitheater project.

Honeywell’s “Clean-up” is No Clean-up

But the truth of the Lake’s condition is quite different. When Honeywell finishes the dredging of Onondaga Lake, more than 80% of the toxic, mercury-contaminated sediments will remain on the lake bottom, extending in depth from less than an inch to over 25 feet. Additionally, the lake sediments contain a toxic combination of 25 other chemicals, including BTEX, PCBs, dioxins/furans, heavy metals, and polyaromatic hydrocarbons, especially naphthalene. Sediment from the mudboils in the Tully Valley, caused by Allied’s salt mining, is expected to “naturally” drift down Onondaga Creek and cover over exposed mercury and other chemicals on the lake bottom.
The mudboils deposit 30 tons of sediment into the Creek daily, just upstream of the Onondaga Nation’s territory; this ruins the Creek for the Nation’s citizens, who can no longer utilize the only body of water they have direct access to. Covering up lake-bottom mercury and other toxic chemicals with this sediment will not “restore” the ecosystem and is unacceptable.
A pump and treat facility, behind an artificial steel barrier wall on the west shore, will continue to remove some of the large amount of chlorobenzene from the solvent plume under I-690. The acres of wetlands—which are essential to a healthy lake ecosystem—once located at Destiny, the unlined Salina landfill, Ninemile Creek and Murphy’s Island, will not be restored.
Solvent odors, containing BTEX, phenol and naphthalene, will still waft out from the industrial waste left in place underneath Honeywell’s “temporary” Visitors Center at the Inner Harbor and the newly proposed amphitheater. All of the Lake tributaries will remain in their artificially constructed and straightened patterns. In the summer, when lake levels are low, 60% of the Lake’s volume will still be discharged from the Metropolitan Sewage Treatment Plant.
The fish will continue to be unhealthy for people and wildlife to eat. Turtle eggs will continue to be destroyed by the Solvay waste beds, and very few of the native birds and animals that once lived by the Lake will be able to survive.


A Solvay waste alluvial washout on the west shore of Onondaga Lake
in May, 2001. Photo: Onondaga Environmental Institute

Healing the Land and Its Peoples


In March of 2005, the Onondaga Nation brought its Land Rights Action asking for the federal court to affirm the Nation’s title to its aboriginal territory, including sacred Onondaga Lake. A few short weeks later the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of NY dramatically changed the law, which resulted in the US courts’ summary dismissal of the Nation’s Land Rights Action. The merits of the Onondaga Nation’s Land Rights Action will never be considered by a US Court.  
The Nation will continue its efforts to regain its stolen lands and waters and is working to file a Petition in either the Organization of American States or the United Nations to challenge the treaty and human rights violations, which the US courts have simply ignored.
If the Onondaga Nation were able to exercise its sovereignty over Onondaga Lake, what would that mean for us in Central New York?
The Land Rights Action is not only about title to the land—it is more fundamentally about the stewardship of the environment and healing the land (see box on page 9).
So far the true story at Onondaga Lake shows little evidence of “healing,” either between the people of the Onondaga Nation and all others who live in this region or of this severely damaged environment. There have been limited steps toward healing, of course: for example, Don Leopold of SUNY-ESF and his students have worked with Honeywell to grow native plants on the wastebeds and in the small, newly constructed wetlands created in the scars where some waste has been removed or concealed. However, invasive non-native plant mixes are still used in the substantial “green” infrastructure plantings.
The Onondaga Nation has received numerous documents and its representatives have spent countless hours discussing the steps being taken at Onondaga Lake. The Nation has a seat at the table, for sure, but its voice is still not heard. The Department of Environmental Conservation continues to appease Honeywell by privately agreeing to more and more ineffective “remediation” plans, and then ignoring the input from the rest of us.
The Onondaga Nation wants to see all waste removed from Onondaga Lake. In managing the Lake, the Nation would find a balance of uses that serve human needs, while still ensuring native plants, birds and animals can thrive, rather than at best survive. The corporations who polluted the Lake, along with some politicians, would like us all to give up the Nation’s vision for a truly clean Onondaga Lake.

A Call to Action

It’s time for the people of Central New York to stand up and insist on a Lake that is truly clean.  It’s time to work toward healing together. We should not celebrate until the job is done correctly, as it is irresponsible to leave the industrial pollutants in place – in the Lake bottom, in the acres of wastebeds, in the filled-in wetlands, behind the barrier wall and beneath the “engineered caps.” After the current plans are completely implemented, the Lake and surrounding areas will remain a hazardous waste burial site.
We are told that we must accept the perpetual presence of massive areas of industrial wastes and the hiding of tons of toxic chemicals that will haunt the generations yet to come. This is unacceptable. We need to slow down the rush to sell out the future, and not be so eager to have Honeywell close its corporate books on yet another of its 128 Superfund sites.
Onondaga Lake is a sacred lake and it is the birthplace of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and western democracy. Let us continue to put our good minds together and work towards a truly restored Lake. Onondaga Lake and the people of our communities deserve better. We should not settle for less.


First Paragraph of the Onondaga Nation’s Land Rights Action

The Onondaga People wish to bring about a healing between themselves and all others who live in this region that has been the homeland of the Onondaga Nation since the dawn of time. The Nation and its people have a unique spiritual, cultural, and historic relationship with the land, which is embodied in Gayanashagowa, the Great Law of Peace. This relationship goes far beyond federal and state legal concepts of ownership, possession or legal rights. The people are one with the land, and consider themselves stewards of it. It is the duty of the Nation’s leaders to work for a healing of this land, to protect it, and to pass it on to future generations. The Onondaga Nation brings this action on behalf of its people in the hope that it may hasten the process of reconciliation and bring lasting justice, peace, and respect among all who inhabit the area.

Joe has been the general counsel for the Onondaga Nation since the early 1980s. He is also a Tully resident who has become very active in the fossil fuel resistance movement, speaking out and organizing against fracking, pipelines, storage of fossils fuels in communities and dangerous crude oil trains, as well as helping land owners end their gas leases.