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Onondaga Lake cleanup underway


After 100 years of environmental assault, Onondaga Lake in Syracuse became known as the most polluted lake in America. But now the final stage of a cleanup is underway. 

If you grew up near Syracuse and your thoughts happen to turn to Onondaga Lake, certain words might spring readily to mind: dump...putrid...cesspool. That’s why the sight and sound of hydraulic dredges at work is so important.

The 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.

"It’s certainly one of the biggest superfund projects in the Northeast," says Syracuse native John McAuliffe, who is the project director for Honeywell, the company responsible for the cleanup.

There’s a cutter head on the end of the dredge, it breaks up the sediments. Then a 16 inch pipe sucks the sediments and the water -- 10 percent sediment, 90 percent water -- up through this double-walled pipeline," said McAuliffe.

That pipe snakes four miles to a waste site where the water is treated and the contaminated mud is stored in huge plastic tubes. Over the next four years, Honeywell will spend more than $450 million removing mercury, PCBs and volatile organic compounds -- the industrial waste produced when it was 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 it is a scientifically reasonable approach to solve the problem.

"The real test will be down the road here in the next few years. Will the fish flesh contamination of mercury come down?" said Effler. "That’s really a lot of what the target is here on this cleanup of the superfund site."

On top of all that industrial pollution, for decades raw and partially treated sewage flowed into Onondaga Lake.

Fixing this problem has been the other big part of Onondaga Lake’s cleanup -- to the tune $600 million of taxpayer money. The big push came when Onondaga County upgraded its sewage treatment plant after being sued by the Atlantic States Legal Foundation. It was a necessary step, says Atlantic States’ Sam Sage, because the lake had no constituency pushing to for a cleanup.

"Central New York is a water-rich part of the world, so there was never a demand that we needed 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," said Sage.

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.

The New York State Department of Enivronmental Conservation says the 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.

But there are plenty of boats filled with scientists testing the water, like from the Upstate Freshwater Institute, who measure things like the water chemistry, including nitrate levels.

Ken Lynch, the man overseeing the cleanup for the DEC, says its time for the embrace a new lake.
We’re getting past the phase of implementing cleanups, towards 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?'" said Lynch.

The last big visible reminder 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 for the most part they are not hazardous and while they will be monitored there are currently no plans to remove them.

David Chanatry reported this story as part of the New York Reporting Project at Utica College. You can read more of the project's stories at their website, nyrp-uc.org.