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Owasco Lake toxins become political football in 24th District race

Payne Horning
Democratic candidate Colleen Deacon accepts the endorsement of the Sierra Club, the largest environmental advocacy group in the U.S., from its president Aaron Mair at Owasco Lake in Auburn.

The two candidates running in the 24th Congressional District converged in Auburn Wednesday to separately address the issue of toxins in Owasco Lake in Cayuga County, each trying to position themselves as better equipped to handle the problem that's affecting drinking water for voters in the region.

In a closed-door meeting at Cayuga Community College, Rep. John Katko (R-Camillus) met with state and local leaders to discuss the blue green algae toxins detected in Owasco Lake. Water samples from the lake, which provides drinking water for several municipalities, have consistently shown detectable levels of the blue green algae toxins over the past month.

State Sen. John DeFrancisco attended the meeting. He said Katko and others present were trying to figure out what role they can play in fixing the problem.

"He's concerned," DeFrancisco said. "He represents this district as do I in the state senate. He wants to make sure that -- how he can be helpful from the federal level."

Katko released a statement after the meeting, taking credit for bringing people together to tackle the district's issues. But on the other side of Auburn, his Democratic opponent Colleen Deacon painted a very different picture.

Deacon claimed Katko has been silent on this issue and vehemently denied his campaign's charges that she has not been aware of the matter.

"I think he's lying to the voters," Deacon said. "He's trying to mislead them because he's actually the one who hasn't been paying attention to this issue. He is the representative for this district. He is somebody who's in Congress and has the ability to get something done for this region and has failed. So rather than standing up and admitting that he didn't do what he was supposed to do, he's trying to turn the tables and blame it on me."

Katko declined to comment on Deacon's charges.

While in Auburn, Deacon accepted an endorsement from the Sierra Club, the largest environmental advocacy group in the country. The organization's president Aaron Mair said Deacon is better suited to handle these matters.

"What we need is someone who’s basically has clear, visionary leadership and is for a clean environment and will lift up the voices in Congress to protect our health, protect our water, protect our air and protect our families," Mair said. "Our congressman, Mr. Katko, is part of a Congress that has set up something called a congressional conservation committee whose sole effort is to dismantle and tear down the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency]. You cannot on one hand say you’re here to protect public health, water quality and protect the environment and on the same token dismantle the very agency that’s charged with doing that."

The spat over Owasco Lake began when Katko's campaign sent out a press release claiming Deacon has been out of touch on the issue. 

"Congressman Katko and his office have been engaged in Cayuga County's manure management working group for the last two years in order to deal with algal blooms in Owasco Lake," the press release said. "Colleen Deacon didn't show up to working group meetings and has been, until recently, largely silent on the issue."

It's a charge the Cayuga County Manure Working Group member Michael Didio, a Republican Cayuga County legislator, said the congressman has been very active with his group's work on toxins. 

"John Katko has had his Regional Rep, Chrisrine Cornall attend most all Manure Management meetings," Didio wrote in an email. "I have never seen Colleen Deacon or her representative at one our Manure Management meetings."

Deacon's own surrogate, Cayuga County Legislator Aileen McNabb-Coleman, offered a different view. McNabb-Coleman said she has personally seen Deacon attend the manure management meetings and any statement to the contrary is inaccurate.

You can find all of WRVO's coverage of the issues leading up to the election by visiting our election hub.


Payne Horning is a reporter and producer, primarily focusing on the city of Oswego and Oswego County. He has a passion for covering local politics and how it impacts the lives of everyday citizens. Originally from Iowa, Horning moved to Muncie, Indiana to study journalism, telecommunications and political science at Ball State University. While there, he worked as a reporter and substitute host at Indiana Public Radio. He also covered the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly for the statewide Indiana Public Broadcasting network.