Syracuse Post Standard
Maybe two dozen people huddled in a pavilion Thursday at Willow Bay in Salina, near the shoreline of a wind-swept Onondaga Lake. They showed up to watch as civic officials officially announced that Honeywell International had agreed to spend $451 million on cleaning up the lake.
Yet the question hanging over the event comes down to the philosophical canyon between Ken Lynch, regional director for the state Department of Environmental Conservation in Syracuse, and Jeanne Shenandoah, an Onondaga Indian who stood quietly at the back.
Lynch, one of the speakers, portrayed Honeywell’s plan as a community-changing breakthrough, based on the best possible science. Shenandoah portrayed it as a weak, ill-fated gesture. Lynch said “capping” toxic sediments will help to finally turn the lake around. Shenandoah said sealing poisons beneath the lake is a strategy doomed to fail.
“With all the information that’s come out, we know this isn’t a total cleanup they’re talking about,” said Shenandoah, a 61-year-old grandmother and environmental activist. “How can they expect us to believe (they’ll be cleaning up the lake) when they’re only going to take part of these toxics out? How can they expect us to believe the public’s going to be safe?”
The plans calls for dredging about 2.65 million cubic yards beneath the lake, which soaked up decades worth of poisons from Allied Chemical, a company eventually bought by Honeywell. What worries Shenandoah and other Onondagas is Honeywell’s plan to use a cap of sand and fill on roughly 580 contaminated acres.
That cap will never hold, she maintains.
Lynch contends that Honeywell’s studies show the cap could withstand waves and other forces generated by the lake.
“We are very confident (this) plan is protective of both human life and the environment,” he said. If Honeywell’s timetable holds true, Lynch said, Onondaga Lake by the late 2010s could be comparable to Oneida Lake a place where children could swim, and anglers could fish, and boaters could jump in and out of the water without fear.
Speaking of the Onondagas, Lynch said, “We’ve tried to include them in the process,” and he said state officials will continue “to reach out” to the nation.
To Shenandoah, Thursday’s announcement was “a little bit of heartbreak.” She said the Onondagas have been closed out of negotiations that didn’t go far enough toward saving a lake that bears their name.
Next week, Shenandoah will be among the Onondaga speakers at “Indigenous and Western Approaches to Healing Our Land and Waters, ” a series of roundtables and discussions between scientists and native leaders at the State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry.
Shenandoah expects many of those sessions to focus on Onondaga Lake, which serves as a mirror for the attitudes of the community around it. The shoreline remains sacred to the Iroquois, the place where they believe their Peacemaker gathered warring Indian nations and had them bury their weapons beneath a tree of peace.
“It was here,” Shenandoah said, opening her arms to the lake, which she said was not intended to be a vault for hiding poisons.
If there was any middle ground between the bright future seen by Lynch and the fears of Shenandoah, it came from Sam Sage, president and senior scientist for the Atlantic States Legal Foundation. Sage has spent decades investigating, litigating and pushing to prevent raw sewage from being dumped into the lake, and he said that Thursday’s announcement represented a “good faith effort” by Honeywell.
Still, Sage remains unsure about how well the plan will work. “We have no scientific data that spending this half-a-billion dollars will make the fish any more edible,” he said. While he was not as pessimistic about the use of a sand cap as Shenandoah, he worried about contaminants seeping from “deep places” in the lake.
The way he sees it, the biggest problem with any cleanup is that Central New York, as a community, has never decided exactly what it wants the lake to be. A court-ordered cleanup, he said, got the ball rolling toward a result that is not exactly clear. Should the lake be a habitat for cold-water fish? Should it be a refuge for wildlife that prefer a weedy, warmer shoreline?
Some of these questions might come up next Thursday, when the state provides a forum for public comment at the New York State Fairgrounds. As for Shenandoah, she reacted with a terse laugh when one onlooker told her the civic goal for the lake “was to make it how it was when Syracuse was prosperous.”
“That’s what got us here in the first place,” she said.
Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Post-Standard. His columns appear Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Call him at 470-6015 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his blog and forum at www.syracuse.com/kirst or write to him in care of The Post-Standard, Clinton Square, Syracuse 13221.