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Onondaga Lake beach study says 32K would swim, but only 22% say it's safe

The lake once called the most polluted in the country, could be getting closer to becoming a beach destination for central New Yorkers. But not everyone is on board with the idea of swimming in a former Superfund site. 

At a recent public meeting, Onondaga County announced results of a survey that showed almost 32,000 people would be willing to go swimming in a potential beach at the Willow Bay area of Onondaga Lake.

“To us it’s a very good sign that people who come to get close to the lake, and experience the lake with their own personal senses, are more comfortable swimming in Onondaga Lake,” Travis Glazier, head of the county’s Department of the Environment, said.

But on the other side, only 22% of respondents felt the lake was safe to swim in.

And while the county has put together renderings showing children splashing in the once-polluted water, Glazier said that presents an issue.

"There’s certainly a lot of people who are not comfortable swimming in the lake, and our data shows there’s not a good reason for that based on water quality,” Glazier said. “So, it appears there is a disconnect between what information we’ve provided to the public and what the public perception is. And bridging that gap might be something the county has to look at in the future.”

There is also some organized resistance to a beach. A group of opponents at the latest meeting suggested the data the county is counting on isn’t accurate, despite millions spent cleaning up the lake of things like toxic heavy metals. Among those, Lindsay Speer, founder of Creating Change Consulting, noted that every part of the remediation, caps, buries or holds back pollution in one shape or form.

"Steel barrier walls don’t last, they rust,” Speer said. “We can expect that the Superfund site will not keep up to what it needs to do to protect people in the long run. We’re left with a half cleaned up lake.”

These are arguments that will undoubtedly continue to play out as the county works on a $400,000 study about the beach’s potential. Glazier hopes a final report that includes costs, will be done by the end of the year. Then it’s up to Onondaga County lawmakers to make the final decision.

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, we identified Lindsay Speer as being with "Creative Change Consulting." Speer is with "Creating Change Consulting."

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.