Onondaga Nation representatives are calling for toxic sludge to be removed from the bottom of Onondaga Lake after three failures of the system that was supposed to keep it in place.
“People want to be able to treat Onondaga Lake like a lake,” said Tadodaho (Sidney Hill) at a press conference on Friday January 29. “We should be able to swim in it, fish in it, and eat the fish we catch. We should be able to drink water from a lake, just like Syracuse gets Skaneateles Lake water. That is what a lake should be, and what this lake once was. But you have to clean out a wound before it can heal.”
Hill, along with environmental attorney Alma Lowry, addressed Onondaga members’ concerns about the failure of a cap system to keep toxic waste beds at the bottom of Onondaga Lake. Documents obtained by the Onondaga Nation under a Freedom of Information request from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation confirmed what the Onondaga Nation predicted in 2005: that the caps would fail. The caps have failed three times since 2012, further contaminating an estimated 40 acres of Onondaga Lake.
Hill lamented the fact that the Onondaga people and others from surrounding communities cannot fish the lake or use its medicines. To look at the lake at its surface is to see improvements, he said, but conditions are still deplorable under the water. He added that the way the lake and other water resources everywhere have been treated is also terrible, and he reemphasized the importance of water as a life-giving force, echoing Native voices from all over the world.
Onondaga Lake is a Superfund site, meaning that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has designated it as a site needing cleanup from industrial waste. For Onondaga Lake, a place of great importance to the Haudenosaunee, the pollution started in the 1880s under Solvay Process Company, which would later become Allied Chemical and Dye Corp., and is currently Honeywell International Inc. The state of New York and Honeywell came up with a plan to clean up the lake in 2005, a plan that was, and still is, deemed inadequate by the Onondaga Nation given that over the years, 165,000 pounds of mercury had been discharged into the lake, along with a host of other toxic substances.
Honeywell began to dredge the lake in 2012 and completed this phase of the operation in 2014. While 2.2 million cubic yards of toxic sediments were removed from the bottom, an additional 9.5 million cubic yards of contamination remain. The portion of the lake that was dredged was capped. The cap failures were discovered by workers.
The Onondaga Nation hired experts to analyze and comment on the lake-cleanup plan when it was first implemented, and they found cause for concern. Even before the first phase of the capping plan had been completed, the cap had failed three times.
These findings came out months and years later, according to Lowry. A full cleanup of Onondaga Lake would cost $2.6 billion, Onondaga’s experts said. Honeywell's annual profits are $4.3 billion.
Hill urged the public to stay involved in the process and not fall for what he said were gimmicks and propaganda that purporting to show that the lake is clean. In 2015, local politicians and some media members jumped into the water off a boat to show how clean the lake had become. Even as they did so, youth from the Onondaga Nation stood on the shore, holding signs in protest to let the public know that the lake was not clean enough.
The issue is especially painful to the Onondaga, given that the lake is where the great tree of peace was planted and the Haudenosaunee confederacy was born.
The plan’s main flaw lies in the strategy, Lowry said, because its goal is containment rather than cleanup. The 9.5 million cubic yards of toxic substances being left on the bottom of the lake is clear enough evidence of that, she said.
Despite the current condition of the lake, Hill said the situation could still be reversed.
“We still have hope for Onondaga Lake's future,” Hill said. “It is our future too.”