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Onondaga Fight for Return of Murphy’s Island After County Voids Resolution

The Onondaga County Legislature has reneged on a resolution it passed in 2011 that would have returned sacred Murphy's Island to the Onondaga Nation.
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The Onondaga Nation has found itself once again fighting to regain control of Murphy’s Island, a Superfund site that was supposed to be returned to the Onondaga this year.

Nullifying a 2011 resolution that would have given the Nation a 36-acre parcel of land on the southern shore of Onondaga Lake, the Onondaga County Legislature in April ruled that instead it would be made into public land bisected by a footpath.

Murphy’s Island is historically significant as the birthplace of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy along its shores. It was here that the Great Tree of Peace was planted as the five nations came together under the Great Law. Today the lake is a Superfund site that’s currently being partially cleaned by Honeywell International Inc., whose predecessor Allied Chemical was found to be responsible for the majority of pollution at the lake.

RELATED: Lake Cleanup Fail: Onondaga Deride Flawed Plan, Demand Dredging

In 2011 the Onondaga County Legislature passed Resolution No. 452, which stated that the county would agree to return the land once it was cleaned up enough for “traditional uses, with such uses including ceremonial gatherings, hunting, fishing, camping, cultivation, and harvest of foods and traditional plants, education and passing down of traditions to Onondaga Nation children, preservation of language and culture, leisure, recreation, sport, worship, wildlife conservation and any other such uses agreed upon.”

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The resolution that replaced it will keep all the land surrounding the lake for public use in perpetuity, thus nullifying the return of historic land back to the Onondaga. This will allow the county to build a public path through the area that is Murphy’s Island. It also allows for the cleanup process of the land to be significantly less stringent than what would be required if the land were given back to the Onondaga Nation for traditional use.

In addition, the more recent resolution supports a transfer of a new parcel of property to be given back to the Onondaga Nation abutting the lake. The new parcel will be determined by the Onondaga County legislature rather than by its significance to the Onondaga people.

The existence of the more recent resolution only came to light at an April 27 meeting between the Onondaga Lake Watershed Partnership (OLWP), a neutral clearinghouse for Onondaga Lake and watershed dialogue and discussion, and representatives from the D.E.C., the City of Syracuse, Honeywell International Inc. and Heath. A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) representative who phoned into the proceedings mentioned it in passing when asked about the current human health risk assessment of Murphy’s Island. The EPA representative indicated that the health risk would be updated with the passage of the new agreement—the first indication that circumstances surrounding the land transfer had changed.

“Any cleanup that is done is based on future land use,” the EPA representative said.

Heath, as well as at least one member of the public who attended the April 27 meeting, raised concerns about the speed at which this new resolution was being pushed through. County executive Joanne Mahoney did not meet with the Onondaga Nation on this matter until the day before the vote on the new resolution was passed, Heath said. The Onondaga County Executive’s Office has not returned phone calls from ICTMN seeking comment.

“We also think it’s too rushed, with very little public time for public comment or public participation,” Heath said. “We hope the vote can at least be adjourned if not withdrawn.��