From the July/August 2019 PNL #867

by Richelle Brown

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Graphic: Elaine Denton


On June 26, the Onondaga County Office of the Environment held the second of three meetings to report progress of a feasibility study on a swimming beach on Onondaga Lake. Held at the Lakeview Amphitheater, an inconvenient and inaccessible location (it is not near the center of any community area and there is no public transportation outside of entertainment events), the meeting was sparsely attended by less than 30 people. The $330,000 feasibility study, funded by a grant from New York State’s Local Waterfront Revitalization Program, will produce conclusions about the desirability of a beach as well as suggest a site, a shovel-ready design, and draft construction contracts. At the June meeting, the county government announced Willow Bay (near the outlet to the Seneca River at the northern end of the lake) as the recommended site. Contractors also presented the results of an unscientific, non-random, and leading online survey from January, which they claimed represented the “likelihood” of the proposed beach’s public use.

The county government does not seem to be interested in gathering or considering information which demonstrates that the promotion of widespread use of the lake endangers public health. Government officials are, in fact, encouraging a swimming beach on the edge of a closed industrial landfill.

The fact that the lake is a closed industrial landfill may be surprising, since there have been years of public discussion led by county government, the State, and Honeywell of a lake “clean-up” under the Superfund program. However, the goal of the plan that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) supervised was toxic containment, not a clean-up. This is true not only for the lake bottom, but for the several sites around the lake that still contain toxic chemicals. Dredging some two million cubic yards of contaminated sediment sounds impressive, until you learn that 80-90% of the contamination is left in place. Toxic levels of mercury, chlorinated benzenes, benzene, toluene, coal tar, chlorinated dioxins, PCBs, and many other hazardous chemicals remain in and around Onondaga Lake. This makes the idea of creating a swimming beach on the shore of such a polluted lake reckless. Building a beach, and thus inviting people to wade into and swim in the lake is a threat to public health.

The main objective of the dredging was not to eliminate pollution in the lake. Instead, its goal was to make room for a cover, or cap, over some of the most contaminated areas. This cover encompasses about 1/7 of the lakebed and consists of several inches to 4.25 feet of sand, gravel, and soil. While it was designed to last a thousand years, it has failed at least three times already between 2012 and 2014, releasing mercury into the water.

Two of the four samples taken on the northern shore of the lake in 1992 had levels of chromium, cadmium and mercury that exceeded the criteria set by the DEC for evaluating lake and wetland contamination. Additional sampling in the northeastern part of the lake has been inadequate for the purposes of assessing any contamination present, and was not done with regard to human recreation. The Onondaga Lake Monitoring and Maintenance Plan, under which Honeywell is required to monitor the status of the lake and the remediation measures, does not include any further sediment sampling in the Willow Bay area. Without such sampling, it is impossible to determine what chemicals would be churned up by people walking and playing on the lake bottom. Members of the public would have no way of knowing what health risks they would be taking by using the beach.

SPC summer intern James Erdman holding the signs he made for
the press conference preceeding the County’s June 26 forum.
Photo: Carol Baum


In their pronouncements about the cleanliness of the lake, public officials and Honeywell representatives often consider increased diversity of plant and animal species and greater water clarity to be indicators of recovery. The main reason for the increase in diversity is upgrades to Onondaga County’s sewage treatment plant and some of the stormwater infrastructure, which were performed after a 1998 federal court degree that showed Onondaga County was in violation of the Clean Water Act. The sewage system released phosphorus, ammonia and fecal bacteria into the lake in levels high enough to create algae blooms that reduced dissolved oxygen, making it impossible for several fish species to live.

But the claim that the lake has “recovered” conveniently confuses the results of better wastewater management with the containment strategy required by the Superfund process. In fact, the largest increase in species diversity was observed in 2004 and 2005, long before Honeywell performed dredging and covering in 2012.

Another example of this “confusion” is the claim of a safe swimming environment in the northern part of the lake. Onondaga County government and state agency proclamations that those waters are swimmable are based on criteria that do not account for all potential threats to human health. They test clarity, the amount of fecal coliform and other bacteria, toxic algae, and chemicals that cause acute symptoms such as immediate eye or skin irritation. They do not consider the health impacts of cumulative exposure to contaminants in the sediments.

The Onondaga County government wishes to portray Onondaga Lake as clean for a number of reasons. Officials want to suggest that the remedial actions required under the Superfund process were an unqualified success. They hope to erase the legacy of a century of toxic dumping and Onondaga County’s own history of massive sewage discharges by depicting the lake as a healthy, thriving ecosystem, suitable for recreation of all kinds. They have built trails, fishing access sites, and an amphitheater without fully informing the public about the increased risks of contamination exposure at those recreation areas.

In addition to being misleading, this message encourages a vision of the lake’s future in which human demands continue to drive our interactions with it. It recognizes neither the lake’s much deeper past as a sacred site nor the Onondaga Nation’s Vision for a Clean Onondaga Lake as sources of wisdom and guidance in the ways we relate to it. Onondaga Lake needs time and continuing care to heal from centuries of abuse. Acting with the values of respect, transparency, responsibility and careful consideration of the consequences of our decisions, we must envision and realize a better future for Onondaga Lake and the many living beings that rely upon it, including ourselves.

The Syracuse community has begun fighting against the misguided and premature plan to develop a recreational swimming beach at Willow bay. Please contact Marianna Kaufman (marianna.kaufman@gmail.com) to join in demanding the DEC, Honeywell and Onondaga County do better for the health of the lake and the health of the people who love it.


Richelle is the Community Organizer in the Law Office

of Joe Heath, General Counsel for the Onondaga Nation.

She has been involved in grassroots organizing on

environmental justice issues since 2011.