Swimming in Onondaga Lake has been banned since 1940 but the commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Joe Martens, was among a group of local and state officials who jumped into the lake on Wednesday. The event was organized by the nonprofit Believe in Syracuse, which highlights positive aspects of the city, to show that it is now safe enough to swim in the lake. The state DEC said low bacteria counts and high water clarity meet the standards for swimming.
While floating in the water, Martens said the visibility was better than expected.
“It's heavily monitored, we take water samples very frequently in this lake, especially because of all the projects that are going on around the lake," Martens said. "If it meets the standards then there's no reason people shouldn't swim in it.”
Martens said the lake will also be positive for the Syracuse economy with the construction of the amphitheater and redevelopment of the inner harbor.
“Everybody wants to be on or near the water and that certainly wasn't true 40 years ago," Martens said. "You didn't want to be here, near the water. It reaked, frankly.”
People cannot go into the water from the shoreline because there are no public beaches yet. Those who want to go in for a dip need to do so from a boat or private dock.
Former Onondaga County Executive Nick Pirro, several county legislators and the mayors of East Syracuse and Solvay also jumped in.
But not everyone is happy with the swimming. Betty Lyons was one of the protesters from the Onondaga Nation who say there are still toxic and sewage contaminants in the lake.
“It's our culture, it's our way of life," Lyons said. "This lake is in pain. The lake is hurting, the fish are hurting.”
Lyons says she wants to see a full restoration of the lake. She was joined by Green Party candidate for Syracuse Common Council Frank Cetera, who cited a regional administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency who echoed the concerns of the protesters.
“So, that really concerns me because a lot of people here, particularly young children may be getting the wrong idea that it's okay to walk into the lake from anywhere around and it's really not okay to do so,” Cetera said.
Before the cleanup effort, Onondaga Lake was called the most polluted lake in the United States because of decades of waste dumping by Allied Chemical. Allied merged with Honeywell International in 1999 and Honeywell has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the past few years dredging the lake to remove the waste.