By Mark Weiner
A new source of toxic chemicals that may be leaking into Onondaga Lake has been discovered at a former industrial dump along the lake’s western shore in Geddes, state officials say.
A preliminary investigation found contaminated ground water and subsurface soil at former Allied Chemical waste beds that cover more than 300 acres of lakeshore in Geddes.
Some of the land is now used as a parking lot for the New York State Fair. Also, Onondaga County has plans to build a new section of the Onondaga Lake recreation trail on top of the waste beds, part of an effort to complete a trail looping the lake.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation said the discovery poses no immediate risk to the public.
“At this point it doesn’t appear this will have any impact on the use of the State Fair parking lot or the proposed trail through that area,” said Ken Lynch, the DEC’s regional director in Syracuse. The DEC has asked Honeywell International Inc., the company that merged with Allied- 6 Signal in 1999, to conduct a larger study to determine the extent of contamination.
“We found contaminants in the waste beds that indicate we need to do a lot more investigation in certain areas,” Lynch said.
Samples of ground water and subsurface soils taken from the waste beds in 2004 and 2005 contained benzene, a cancer-causing chemical, and toluene, xylene, napthalene and phenols, according to a DEC report.
Under a legal agreement approved May 12 by U.S. District Judge Frederick J. Scullin, the state must report to him on the status of Honeywell’s remedial investigation by June 1, 2007.
For decades,Allied Chemical officials maintained that the waste beds contained inert materials, mainly calcium carbonate and similar salty byproducts from the production of soda ash.
Now the discovery could complicate plans for the larger cleanup of toxic waste on the bottom of Onondaga Lake. Before that can be accomplished, sources of pollution on the shore and in tributaries such as Nine Mile Creek and Geddes Brook must be addressed.
The state has asked Honeywell to clean up mercury hot spots from the lakeshore and some portions of the lake bottom as part of the $451 million, seven-year cleanup.
Honeywell has yet to agree to the state plan.
State and Honeywell officials have been negotiating a legal agreement for a voluntary cleanup since July 1, when the state issued a formal decision detailing what must be done.
As part of that plan, the DEC wants Honeywell to dredge from the lake bottom 2.65 million cubic yards of sediment tainted with mercury and other chemicals. Although the waste beds border the lower reaches of Nine Mile Creek before it empties into the lake, Lynch said the state is confident lake and creek cleanups can proceed as scheduled.
While the investigation focuses on the waste beds and lower part of the creek, cleanup can begin upstream, Lynch said.
“We’re not significantly delaying the cleanup of Onondaga Lake because we are proceeding with the cleanup of the upper reaches of Nine Mile Creek,” Lynch said. He said any contamination affecting the lower part of the creek can be addressed before or during the lake cleanup.
Honeywell officials agree.
“The proposed schedule for the cleanup of the lake will not be affected,” said Victoria Streitfeld, a spokeswoman at Honeywell headquarters in Morristown, N.J.
A lawyer for the Onondaga Nation, which has objected to the state’s approach to the cleanup, questions how the other projects can proceed without delay.
“If they don’t know what that (Nine Mile) creek is bringing into the lake, how can they begin work on the lake?” said lawyer Joseph Heath.
Heath said the waste beds pose more of a problem than anyone had previously believed. “What impresses me is that all of these areas are much worse than we have known,” Heath said.
He added, “The public is told at every opportunity that the lake is so much cleaner. But they don’t even know how bad those waste beds are. We don’t know how much of those toxic chemicals are reaching the lake.”
Lynch said it is too soon to determine if the waste beds will be listed as a hazardous waste site. First, the state must determine the source of the chemicals and how they ended up in the waste beds.
It’s also unclear what the cleanup might cost, Lynch said.
The waste beds in question are numbered 1 through 8 and were used for disposal of waste from Allied Chemical in Solvay until a berm breeched in 1943.
For every pound of soda ash made at the plant, the process produced 11/2 pounds of waste that was dumped into the beds, said Ed Michalenko, president of the Onondaga Environmental Institute in Syracuse.
Michalenko, who completed his doctoral dissertation on the waste beds, said most of the waste was inert and nontoxic. But he’s not surprised toxic chemicals have been found.
“The waste beds have been a smorgasbord of waste materials for a long time,” he said.
Subsequent waste beds, numbered 9 through 15, were later opened in Geddes and Camillus upstream along Nine Mile Creek. No toxic chemicals have been found in those waste beds..