Onondaga Lake Clean-Up Goes to the Bottom


The bottom of Onondaga Lake is being scraped to remove mercury and other chemicals in the next big phase of the lake’s cleanup.

Dredging to take out the mercury will be a major environmental improvement, said Richard Smardon, an environmental science professor at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

“Fish eat mercury, birds eat fish, and mercury spreads through the whole ecosystem,” said Richard Smardon, “There’s ten feet of sediment at the bottom of the lake that needs to be completely removed.”

The dredging will last through the summer. It is part of a massive cleanup effort at Onondaga Lake to tackle two problems: industrial pollution and sewage overflows.

For over 100 years, the lake was exposed to industrial waste and chemical pollutants. From 1946 to 1970, the Allied Chemical Corporation discharged an estimated 165,000 pounds of mercury into the lake. Additionally, sewage overflows and storm-water runoff leaked into the lake, violating New York state environmental laws.

Honeywell, Allied Chemical’s successor, has pledged $550 million to remove the mercury. Onondaga County is spending an additional $600 million to update sewage treatment facilities and create systems to manage sewage overflows.

The Honeywell project, said environmental scientist Smardon, has three main steps:

  • In December, an underground barrier wall was completed to cut off contaminated groundwater from leaking into the lake.
  • Now, the lake is being dredged. This process pumps mercury sediment from the bottom of the lake to an alternate site.
  • Once the sediment is removed, areas on the lake bottom that have been excavated will be capped or filled with sand. This ensures the lake has a continuous flat bottom.

In a separate project, Onondaga County is trying to drastically reduce storm water and sewage discharge into the lake, said John Ferrante, the state environmental monitor who oversees the county cleanup efforts.

“We are installing new pipes that separate storm water and sewage to cut down on the flow and not overwhelm the system,” said Ferrante. “By 2018, except for very rare circumstances, we can theoretically eliminate bacteria and chemical contamination in the lake.”

The Syracuse Metropolitan Sewage Treatment Plant is also being updated to prevent ammonia and phosphorous from getting into the lake. By the end of June, the county must meet state environmental regulations that determine how much of these substances can be in the lake. The ammonia level has already been reduced to the required level, said Ferrante. Phosphorous levels are expected to be reduced to state regulations as well, according to Ferrante.

Once the cleanup efforts are complete, the community and county will have to decide how to develop the areas around the lake. FOCUS, or Forging Our Community’s United Strength, is a citizen-engagement organization that transmits citizen’s ideas to decision makers in government. Onondaga County gave the group $20,000 to plan for community development following the cleanup.

A Loop the Lake hiking trail, a Native American cultural center, and boat ramps are among the proposed ideas, according to Charlotte “Chuckie” Holstein, the executive director of the citizen-outreach group.

“Other people just want to keep the area forever wild,” said Holstein. “Some think we should just replant native plants and get rid of all development.”

In 2008, a survey conducted by the citizen organization found that making Onondaga Lake clean, available, and accessible was one of the top preferences for people in the community.

“The lake was never clean in my life and it needs to be in the future,” said Holstein. “Now is the right time to start doing something. Enough planning — let’s do it.”

(Ben Klein is a senior with dual majors in magazine journalism and political science.)


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