New York’s Onondaga Lake

A NextGen Blog by Marianne Swan, State University of New York, Oneonta.

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. Our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts only student essays; sponsors a forum for its student contributors; and invites student proposals to write on watershed values, threats and solutions.

A recent graduate of SUNY Oneonta, Marianne Swan is pursuing a career in the field of environmental sustainability with particular interest in food and water security. Her blog below, representing an important development NWNL has been following, presents a dynamic solution to today’s critical need to protect global freshwater resources.

NWNL DIRECTOR’S NOTE: While not in a NWNL case study watershed, threats to NY’s Onondaga Lake mirror similar threats to the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River Basin, which NWNL has documented. The devastation of the Columbia’s salmon runs also deeply affect the culture, diet and health of its Indigenous communities – from the K’tunaxa to the Chinook Nations. America’s original inhabitants seem to be the continent’s best stewards.


Just outside of Syracuse, New York, lies Onondaga Lake, a small glacial remnant with a history that predates the arrival of European explorers and settlers. By the late 20th century, decades of industrial pollution and discharged human waste earned it the notoriety of being America’s most polluted lake. The primary polluter (now known as Honeywell International, Inc.) was sued by both the US Attorney General in 1970 and New York State in 1989, and subsequently shut down.

The US federal Superfund law of 1980 required Honeywell to repair the damage they’d done to Onondaga Lake.1Onondaga Lake Partnership After a ten-year cleanup initiative, Honeywell declared the remediation project successfully completed in 2017, yet the local Onondaga Nation, known as the Haudenosaunee, is adamant that masses of toxic sediment remain in and around the lake.2Onondaga Nation,3http://www.lakecleanup.com/final-habitat-enhancements-mark-successful-completion-of-honeywells-onondaga-lake-cleanup/ This lake’s long history of bearing significance to Indigenous people’s has not been forgotten, but the voice of the Onondaga Nation has not been factored into recent efforts to remediate the lake.

Onondaga Lake, courtesy of borisvolodnikov and Creative Commons.

A Complex History

In the late 19th century and prior to its extreme degradation, Onondaga Lake was a popular fishing and leisure destination.4Willianson, Karen and Hesler, Don Over 500 years ago, before it was a scenic site for Western entertainment or a public health hazard, Onondaga Lake bore cultural significance to the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) People of the Longhouse, indigenous to upstate New York.

According to oral tradition, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy was created when five warring tribes (the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk) were unified by Hiawatha and the Peacemaker. The chieftain accepted the Creator’s message of peace on the shores of Onondaga Lake.5New World Encyclopedia The Haudenosaunee are renowned for their impressive independence during early colonial times. Thus, it’s likely that their Great Law of Peace influenced the U.S. Constitution.6Hansen, Terri After the American Revolution, the Indigenous people of the Onondaga region lost most of their territory, including Onondaga Lake. Several attempts to reestablish Indigenous Onondaga stewardship of their ancestral lands have been dismissed by American courts.7Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation (NOON)

The Hiawatha Wampum Belt represents the unity of the five Haudenosaunee nations. It was returned to Onondaga Lake, the site of its creation, in 2016. Courtesy of the Indigenous Value Initiative.

Not only did the Haudenosaunee lose access to a sacred site, they also witnessed its desecration as industrialization took hold. Soda-ash production began in the late 1800’s.8Onondaga Community College Onondaga Lake’s cold-water fishery collapsed shortly after.9Effler, S. W. and Hennigan, R. D.

By 1930, tourism around the lake dried up, as Honeywell’s toxic industrial outputs accumulated in massive beds of waste. The lake was declared un-swimmable in 1940; and a fishing ban was instituted in 1970. The facility shut down in the mid-eighties and Onondaga Lake was identified as a Superfund site in 1994. Yet official cleanup didn’t begin until 2006.10Onondaga Nation

Onondaga Pollution

Honeywell’s facility produced ionic waste, toxic to many forms of aquatic life. Soda-ash pollution reduced oxygen availability and thus resulted in the loss of plant and animal biodiversity, especially for benthic (bottom-feeding) life and frogs.11Effler, Steven and Matthews, David

An industrial pipeline extended into Onondaga Lake, 1900. Courtesy of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

By 1970, Honeywell was dumping about 25 pounds of mercury into the lake each day. Through the process of biomagnification (the entry of a pollutant or toxic substance in the food chain) this mercury made its way up the food chain in increasingly toxic amounts, making large fish especially dangerous to eat.12Willianson, Karen and Hesler, Don Prolonged exposure to methylmercury can have negative effects on essentially all of a person’s organ systems, and fetal exposure drastically increases the likelihood of miscarriage, stillbirth and birth defects.13Rice, Kevin et al. Industrial waste hasn’t been the only threat to Onondaga Lake’s integrity and public health. In the first half of the 20th century, raw and partially-treated sewage was pumped into the lake. Even after Syracuse developed METRO to better treat and manage effluent, overflows were (and still are) pervasive.14Effler, S. W. and Hennigan, R. D.

Along with dangerous bacteria, sewage contains high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen, which encourage algal blooms that stunt plants and kill fish. Some blooms produce dangerous bacteria that can spread to humans who eat shellfish or come into contact with polluted water.15United States Environmental Protection Agency

When Honeywell declared its cleanup project complete, it cited improved water quality, expanded wetlands and thriving wildlife as evidence of their success. The company also measured its accomplishments qualitatively, stating the lake does look cleaner and smell better than it did before cleanup. Honeywell has pledged to maintain and monitor the “habitat enhancements,” as directed by the settlement that resolved the Superfund claims.16https://www.justice.gov/enrd/consent-decree/file/1019661/download

A Community at Risk

Even though the matter is resolved in the eyes of the federal Superfund law, many people living around the lake aren’t satisfied. In 2018, suburban residents tried to sue Honeywell for exposure to hazardous waste that was carelessly dumped after being dredged from the lakebed.17Periconi, James Onondaga County has plans to create a beach along Onondaga Lake, yet most locals believe that the lake isn’t safe for swimmers.18Abbott, Ellen

The Onondaga Nation was skeptical about the cleanup plan before it began, with its representative Sid Hill calling it an “expensive band-aid.” The Onondaga Nation identified major shortcomings, arguing that 18 million yards of waste remain un-dredged, and the partial “cap” barrier over the lake bottom is not a permanent solution, since it will eventually break down.19Onondaga Nation

Onondaga Creek, courtesy of Syracuse Peace Council and Creative Commons

The cap failed three times between 2012 and 2016.20Coin, Glenn The faulty cap is not the only indicator that Onondaga Lake is not quite remedied. The NY State Department of Health claims that fish in the lake still contain plenty of mercury, as well as toxic PCBs and dioxins.21NYS Department of Health When the NY State Department of Health declared the northern part of Onondaga Lake swimmable in 2015, they did not address how people who frequently swim in the lake could be impacted over time, or what the effects of exposure to toxic sediment might be.22A Better Future for Onondaga Lake

Today, 9.5 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment remain in Onondaga Lake.23Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering,24Manno, Jack et al. The short-term cap problem, coupled with the presence of methylmercury, indicates that, while Onondaga Lake may look and smell acceptable enough to serve as a community asset, it is not truly rehabilitated—at least in the eyes of the Onondaga Nation, who want the toxic sediment to be removed entirely.

Encouragingly, grassroots organizations and guardians like the Neighbors of Onondaga Nation, the Syracuse Peace Council are keeping Onondaga Lake’s health in the public eye. Additionally, there have been fewer algal blooms in the lake in the past two decades and a recent study on the lake found that the effects of soda-ash pollution should continue to diminish over time.25Effler, Steven and Matthews, David

Certainly, progress has been made at Onondaga Lake, but local residents and the Onondaga Nation deserve the continuance of governmental supervision and Honeywell’s best efforts at restoring the lake to its pre-industrial state. The Syracuse Peace Council Events Page has updates on the health of the Onondaga, as the fight for Indigenous rights, fair settlements and stronger restoration efforts continue.

Sunset at Onondaga Lake, courtesy of sailwings and Creative Commons

Sources:

Abbott, Ellen. “Onondaga Lake beach Study Says 32K Would Swim, But Only 22% Say It’s Safe.” WRVO Public Media, July 2019. Accessed October 15th, 2020 by MS. https://www.wrvo.org/post/onondaga-lake-beach-study-says-32k-would-swim-only-22-say-its-safe

Effler, Steven and Matthews, David. “Impacts of a Soda Ash Facility on Onondaga Lake and the Seneca River, NY.” Lake and Reservoir Management, December 2003. Accessed October 12th, 2020 by MS. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07438140309353940

Effler, S. W. and Hennigan, R. D. “Onondaga Lake, New York: Legacy of Pollution.” Lake and Reservoir Management, 12(1), 1996. Accessed October 12th, 2020 by MS. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/07438149609353992

“Finger Lakes Region Fish Advisories.” NYS Department of Health, last updated November 2019. Accessed October 15th, 2020 by MS. https://www.health.ny.gov/environmental/outdoors/fish/health_advisories/regional/fingerlakes.htm#table

Hansen, Terri. “How the Iroquois Great Law of Peace Shaped U.S. Democracy.” PBS, December 2018. Accessed October 10th, 2020 by MS. https://www.pbs.org/native-america/blogs/native-voices/how-the-iroquois-great-law-of-peace-shaped-us-democracy/#2

“History of Onondaga Lake.” Onondaga Community College., n.d. Accessed October 12th, 2020 by MS. https://www.sunyocc.edu/index.aspx?menu=542&id=13388

“Historical Timeline of Onondaga-U.S. History.” Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation (NOON), 2014. Accessed October 12th, 2020 by MS. https://www.peacecouncil.net/sites/default/files/History%20Timeline%205-2014.pdf

“Honeywell & Onondaga Lake: A Timeline.” Onondaga Nation, n.d. Accessed October 10th, 2020 by MS. https://www.onondaganation.org/land-rights/the-offenders/honeywell-onondaga-lake-a-timeline/

Manno, Jack, Mager, Andy, and Speer, Lindsay. “Onondaga Lake NRDA Restoration Plan and Environmental Assessment.” Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation (NOON), July 2017. Accessed October 15th, 2020 by MS. https://www.peacecouncil.net/sites/default/files/FINAL%20NOON%20NRDAR%20Comments%207.17.17.pdf

“Mercury and Onondaga Lake.” Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Syracuse University, September 2016. Accessed October 15th, 2020 by MS. https://ctdrisco.expressions.syr.edu/onondaga-lake-and-mercury-contamination/mercury-and-onondaga-lake/

“Nutrient Pollution.” United States Environmental Protection Agency, n.d. Accessed October 12th, 2020 by MS. https://www.epa.gov/nutrientpollution/issue#:~:text=Too%20much%20nitrogen%20and%20phosphorus%20in%20the%20water%20causes%20algae,aquatic%20life%20need%20to%20survive

“Onondaga (tribe).” New World Encyclopedia. December 2018. Accessed October 9th, 2020 by MS. https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Onondaga_(tribe)#History

“Onondaga Nation Calls for Better Cleanup of Onondaga Lake: Point to Cap Failures as Sign Remedy of Superfund Site Needs to Be Improved.” Onondaga Nation, January 20, 2016. Accessed October 9th, 2020 by MS. https://www.onondaganation.org/news/2016/onondaga-nation-calls-for-better-cleanup-of-onondaga-lake-point-to-cap-failures-as-sign-remedy-of-superfund-site-needs-to-be-improved/

Periconi, James. “Second Circuit Affirms Dismissal of Onondaga Lake Contamination Suit Citing Federal Preemption.” Periconi, LLC Firm News, July 2018. Accessed October 12th, 2020 by MS. https://www.periconi.com/blog/2018/07/second-circuit-affirms-dismissal-of-onondaga-lake-contamination-suit-citing-federal-preemption/

Rice, Kevin, Walker, Ernest Jr., Wu, Miaozong, Gillette, Chris, and Blough, Eric. “Environmental Mercury and Its Toxic Effects.” Journal of Preventive Medicine and Public Health, 47(2), March 2014. Accessed October 15th, 2020 by MS. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3988285/

“The Facts About Onondaga Lake.” A Better Future for Onondaga Lake, n.d. Accessed October 15th, 2020 by MS. https://peacecouncil.net/sites/default/files/Fact-Sheet-Onondaga-Lake_0.pdf

The Onondaga Lake “Cleanup” Plan.” Onondaga Nation, n.d. Accessed October 10th, 2020 by MS. https://www.onondaganation.org/land-rights/the-onondaga-lake-cleanup-plan/

Willianson, Karen and Hesler, Don. “Return to Glory: The Resurgence of Onondaga Lake.” New York State Conservationist vol. 4, August 2006. Accessed October 9th, 2020 by MS. https://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/water_pdf/olreturntoglory.pdf

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