Onondaga Lake: A Tale of Trust A Story by Yaskira Mota

On a brisk April morning, one can walk along Onondaga Lake Park and see the families, runners and bikers enjoying their time. Lepietro, who has lived in Syracuse for 25 years, was one of the people taking advantage of the sunny day by the lake. When asked how he felt about Onondaga Lake he said, “I feel comfortable walking by the lake, more so than before…However I would not jump into it.” His comments echo the view of some of the citizens of central New York, who have a long history with Onondaga Lake. The lake is located northwest of Syracuse, New York, and according to those at the Upstate Freshwater Institute it used to be the most polluted lake in America. For a time it was completely unusable, and people were not allowed to fish nor swim in it. However, thanks to a number of engineering innovations and $1 billion in funding, coming from a number of sources such as Honeywell, Onondaga county and Superfunds, the Lake is on its way to becoming an asset to the community. The measures taken to clean up the lake include reducing the amount of untreated water that is released onto the lake during heavy storms, changes to the wastewater treatment plant which reduced the amount of nutrients going into the lake and dredging to clean up the contaminants that settled on the bottom of the lake for decades. As of today, Onondaga Lake is no longer the most polluted lake in America, or even in the region, and meets most water quality standards. Dr. Charlie Driscoll is a distinguished university professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Syracuse University, who often calls the lake recovery a “success story”. Nevertheless, the reputation of the Lake remains tainted, and the community of Syracuse refuses to accept that the lake is no longer a danger.

Enjoying the view

Much of the community’s distrust of the Onondaga Lake comes from years of negative stigma. Dr. Driscoll explains, “The very polluted Onondaga Lake has been so much of the region’s history. It’s been on the papers, the news, when smelling its odor at the state fair – it was terrible.” According to Onondaga Community College, before the American Revolution, Onondaga Lake played a major role for the locals of the area. The lake was the center of the Iroquois Confederacy before the American Revolution, and was considered to be sacred. The Onondagas, a group that was part of the Iroquois Confederacy, revealed to the French in 1654 that salt springs were present in the southern shores of the lake, and by 1793 commercial salt production began on the lakeshore. Salt production became a huge part of the Syracuse economy, the city of Syracuse was nicknamed “The Salt City” as a result. Salt production was not the only industry that took advantage of Onondaga Lake. In 1881, the Solvay Process Company, currently known as Honeywell, began production of soda ash. The salt brines and limestones found on the lakeshore helped with the production of that product. In 1918, Solvay Process Company started the production of organic chemicals and chlorine gas. Some of the waste that was created during the production of those chemicals were land filled on the western sections of the lake while in other cases the waste was directly discharged into the lake. Meanwhile the population of Syracuse was also increasing rapidly, according to census data, in 1880 the population of the city was 51,792, which increased to 171,717 by 1920. With the increase in population, the amount of waste and nutrients entering the lake also increased, which contaminated the lake at a faster rate. All of those factors contributed to the rapid degradation of the water quality for Onondaga Lake. By 1940, the lake was declared unsafe for swimming and by 1970 fishing was banned on the lake. The poor water quality was mocked by the media and the locals. As citizens drove by it they could smell the unpleasant odor that would come from the lake. On that early April morning, Lepietro did not complain about any unpleasant smells coming off the lake, however he still did not trust what was within the water, because by this point Onondaga Lake had a negative reputation for far too long.

Salt Museum in Onondaga Lake Park

The lack of trust for the lake comes from two main groups. The first being the people that don’t agree with the methods used to clean up the Lake. For example, the Onondaga Nation is unhappy with the results of the clean-up. According to the Onondaga Nation website, the current plan, which covers dredging, capping, updated the wastewater plan and reducing the amount of overflow during storm events, is an “unacceptable, inadequate ‘cleanup’.” They are not pleased with the decision of dredging 2.2 million cubic yards of the lake’s bottom soil and placing a cap over the rest. The Onondaga Nation believe that the lake will not be completely clean until all the soil on the bottom of the lake is removed and that a cap will not be reliable in the long-term. However this is not possible. Dredging all the soil on the bottom of the lake would disrupt the ecosystem by removing all the food sources for the small organisms in the lake and eventually it will completely kill the lake. Dr. Driscoll comments, “You understand their intention but it is not possible to do what they will like to have done and I don’t think it would be in the best interest of the lake”. The other group that has a deep distrust of the lake is the people that have known for long time that the lake was contaminated and changing their minds will take time. Dr. Charlie Driscoll talks during community outreach meetings about the lake and he noticed a couple of themes that come up when people argued about the lake. “I think it’s hard for people to accept change and I think sometimes people struggle with technical issues.” He believes that changes occurs very slowly and the best thing we can do is educate the public while still giving them time to accept the new changes.

No Fishing allow in this section of the Onondaga Lake

The city of Syracuse has tried to convince its citizens that they can trust the lake. In January of 2017 a movie of Onondaga Lake was released, the film was titled “Beneath the Surface: The Storied History of Onondaga Lake at the Palace.” During the time the movie was shown in select locations while the price of the tickets ranged from $20 to $100, a price not accessible to many citizens, however the movie is planned to be released to the public for free once the cost of production is offset. Once released it can be used as an education tools in public spaces like schools. In the meantime, the city finds other ways to make contact with the community. Honeywell has a visiting center right by the lake in order to do community outreach, and experts like Dr. Driscoll give talks to the community periodically. The reputation of the lake has yet to recover completely, but slowly the community is starting to accept it. For example, in a community survey conducted by FOCUS Greater Syracuse in 2012, one can see the slow improvements. As Charlotte Holstein, the executive director of FOCUS (Forging Our Community's United Strength group) Greater Syracuse writes in the Letter of Thanks, “A frequent comment in the past was ‘not in my lifetime will I see a clean Onondaga Lake.’ This has been replaced with ‘My kids are going to be able to swim in Onondaga Lake, and it could be soon.”’

A Family at the Onondaga Lake park

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