By Mark Weiner
A year ago, state officials approved a $451 million plan to clean up Onondaga Lake’s industrial pollution and began negotiating to make the lake’s biggest polluter pay the bill.
The cleanup plan was one of the final tasks before the state could resolve its 1989 lawsuit against polluter Allied Chemical, which, through mergers, became Honeywell International.
Now, more than a year since the July 1, 2005, announcement of the plan’s approval, state and Honeywell officials have little to say about their closed-door negotiations.
Some environmental advocates say they worry that state and Honeywell lawyers may agree in private to change the cleanup requirements while avoiding public scrutiny.
“It’s obvious that the process is entirely too secretive,” said Joseph Heath, a lawyer representing the Onondaga Nation, whose leaders have criticized the cleanup plan for the lake, which they consider sacred.
“We have a major decision for our community – this lake and its health, and whether or not it gets cleaned up, is one of our biggest issues – and the meetings are absolutely secretive,” Heath said. “That is not the way I imagine a democracy should work.”
He said only the lawyers for the state and Honeywell will make critical decisions that could include changes to the cleanup plan.
“That’s just not satisfying to the Onondaga Nation, and it should not be satisfying to the people of Liverpool, Camillus or anywhere in Central New York,” Heath said.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation’s cleanup plan proposes giving Honeywell seven years to work on the lake cleanup. DEC officials said it would be one of the largest and most expensive cleanup projects in state history.
The state wants Honeywell to sign a legal order agreeing to clean up mercury hot spots from the lakeshore and portions of the lake bottom. The DEC wants Honeywell to dredge 2.65 million cubic yards of sediment contaminated with mercury and other chemicals.
Other, less toxic portions of the lake bottom would be covered with a natural cap to prevent the release of chemicals into the water.
Ken Lynch, the DEC’s regional director in Syracuse, who is part of the state’s negotiating team, said no changes to that plan will be made without public review.
“The cleanup of Onondaga Lake has, and will continue to be, a public process,” Lynch said.
He said the cleanup plan was subject to extensive public comment, and any consent decree that comes out of the negotiations will be subject to public comment before approval.
Lynch said “significant design and construction details will be shared with the public prior to implementation.” He added, “We have been and will continue to involve the community and other interested parties in this process…”
Lynch and Honeywell officials declined to discuss specific details of the negotiations.
Victoria Streitfeld, a spokeswoman at Honeywell headquarters in Morristown, N.J., said neither the company nor state officials have tried to avoid public scrutiny of the cleanup plan.
“There has been widespread public involvement in the development of a proposed remedy for the lake in accordance with state and federal legal requirements,” Streitfeld said. “The state has exceeded these requirements. Any suggestion to the contrary would be misleading. We’re confident that DEC will continue to seek public input.”
Among those who want to know what lake decisions are being made out of public view is Dereth Glance, program director for the Syracuse office of Citizens Campaign for the Environment.
“There should be a role for citizens,” Glance said. “The public should know about changes in the plan.”
At the very least, Glance said, she is glad the public will have a chance to review the legal order for the cleanup before it is submitted to a federal court judge.
“I think it’s a good thing that there’s steps for continued public involvement,”
Glance said. “We want to make sure the cleanup plan is going to be as effective and comprehensive as possible.”
The Onondaga Nation has similar concerns.
Onondaga leaders say the existing plan is unacceptable because it allows toxic chemicals to remain buried in the lake and on the shoreline at the old Allied Chemical complex in Solvay.
Heath, the Onondaga Nation lawyer, is skeptical that state officials will be willing to listen to public concerns after a legal deal is reached with Honeywell.
“The ultimate test is, ‘What is the DEC going to do when they hear the public doesn’t like the plan?’ ” Heath said. “It has never made any difference to them that people don’t like their plan. My fear is that no matter what the public says, it won’t matter at all, and the plan won’t change.”