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Capping of toxic sediments in Onondaga Lake have failed in the past

Tom Magnarelli
Tadodaho Sidney Hill of the Onondaga Nation (left) and Alma Lowry (center) at Onondaga Lake.

Honeywell International has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the past few years dredging and capping Onondaga Lake to remove and contain toxic chemicals from decades of pollution. But documents submitted by Honeywell to the state Department of Environmental Conservation show that the caps holding back the toxic sediments in the lake have failed three times since 2012.

A spokeswoman for Honeywell said the company is working to adjust its methods of placing caps. The Onondaga Nation said Honeywell and the state DEC will have to remain continuously vigilant to make sure the caps work. Tadodaho Sidney Hill of the Onondaga Nation said while the caps were a good start, they believe they are not a good solution.

"Our people said that there's a chance that it will fail," Hill said. "It is, I guess, an experiment."

Alma Lowry is an attorney working with the Onondaga Nation.

"We have to remain vigilant," Lowry said. "The public, the DEC, Honeywell, have to remain vigilant and engaged for tens, hundreds, maybe a thousand years to make sure that these containment remedies stay whole, functional and effective. What we have in those contaminated sediments is a stew of toxins that are going to be just as toxic in 100 years or 1,000 years as they are today. The only thing holding those contaminants back is the cap."

Lowry said workers on site at Onondaga Lake saw the cap failures happen.

“We’re talking about a landfill that’s at the bottom of a lake," Lowry said. "We can’t look to see whether the caps are sliding, we can’t look to see if it’s solid or still in good shape. Had somebody not been on the lake when those sections slid, we might not have known, for weeks or months that that had happened.”

The capping is on schedule to be completed in 2016. A spokeswoman for the state DEC said cap adjustments will be implemented throughout the year and monitoring of the caps and water quality will continue for years after the capping is completed. A review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2015 found that no new information calls into question the protectiveness of the capping.

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.