Cleaning 100 Years of Pollution

onondoga lake 092

This story was produced by the NYRP-UC and broadcast by WAER Syracuse, Northeast Public Radio and the WRVO stations.

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. Our story comes from David Chanatry, of the New York Reporting Project at Utica College.

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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 –this- sound is so important.

Ambi/Dredging

Those are hydraulic dredges, beginning to vacuum up a century’s worth of hazardous waste. Three are now working around the clock 6 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.

Syracuse native John McAuliffe 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% SEDIMENT 90% WATER, UP THROUGH THIS DOUBLE WALLED PIPELINE.

More ambi dredging fade under

People passing by the site might have seen the pipe that snakes 4 miles to a waste site where the water is treated and the contaminated mud stored in huge plastic tubes. Over the next four years, Honeywell will spend more than 450 million dollars removing mercury, PCB’s 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’s a scientifically reasonable approach to solve the problem.

THE REAL TEST WILL BE DOWN THE ROAD HERE IN THE NEXT FEW YEARS, WILL MERCURY CONTENT OF FISH FLESH DROP. 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.

Fixing this problem has been the –other- big part of Onondaga’s cleanup, to the tune 600 million dollars of taxpayer money. The big push came when Onondaga County upgraded its sewage treatment plant after being sued by the Atlantic States Legal Foundation, 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, THERE WAS NEVER A DEMAND THAT WE NEEDED THIS LAKE IN ORDER TO FISH OR SWIM OR GO BOATING, BECAUSE HAD THE FINGER LAKES, WE HAD THE GREAT LAKES LIKE ONTARIO. WE HAD RIVERS WE HAD STREAMS.

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% of runoff by 2018.

The DEC says 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.

Ambi boat noise

But there are plenty of boats filled with scientists testing the water.

AMBI SPLASHING/

OUR MAIN INTEREST TODAY IS THE NITRATE DATA

This one’s from the Upstate Freshwater Institute. It’s crisscrossing the lake, using a winch to lower a large instrument to monitor water chemistry.

OK YOU CAN BRING HER UP.

And SUNY’s School of Envronmental science and forestry is netting fish to estimate populations and check for contaminants.  

Ken Lynch, the man overseeing the cleanup for the DEC, says its time for the public to 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?

One of the last visible reminders of the bad old days are the huge white mounds along the western shore near the fairgrounds… –mostly- non-hazardous waste from soda ash production. The DEC says they’ll be monitored but there are currently no plans to remove them. And as the dredging, reduced runoff, even the new development along the inner harbor improve the lake and it’s surroundings, it’s reputation as a place to avoid is finally beginning to change.

For WAER, I’m David Chanatry with the New York Reporting Project at Utica College.