By Lyndsay Speer
Change is in the air, and it smells sweet. Onondaga County Executive Joanne Mahoney announced on May 2 that the County has chosen not to award construction bids for the proposed Clinton Regional Treatment Facility (RTF) in Armory Square and is instead exploring more environmentally and economically sound options with the State of New York, Atlantic States Legal Foundation, City of Syracuse, and for the first time, the Onondaga Nation.
The Onondaga Nation’s Land Rights Action calls for a healing between people and the environment. That message continues to inspire local environmental groups, and most recently, it seems, the County Executive. The Nation’s persistent work with the Partnership for Onondaga Creek kept the concerns about the sewage plants in the news and in politicians’ minds, and allowed the Nation to play a key role in bringing all of the parties back to the negotiating table to look at new information about water quality in Onondaga Creek and new options available for addressing it.
Syracuse has an antiquated combined sewer system, in which runoff is directed into the sanitary sewers. A heavy rainfall results in Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs), dumping sewage directly into Onondaga Creek. Onondaga County’s previous solution to this problem was to treat the sewage with chlorine before dumping it into the creek, solving the bacteria problem but creating a host of other environmental concerns.
In 2007, scientists at the Onondaga Environmental Institute discovered that bacteria concentrations in Onondaga Creek were high year-round, not just after storms, calling into question the effectiveness of the RTFs’ end-of-pipe solution. In January 2008, the U.S. EPA released their Action Strategy for Managing Wet Weather with Green Infrastructure, which urges municipalities to use green infrastructure, such as rain barrels, green roofs, and other methods to prevent the CSOs by keeping the stormwater out of the sewer system. These developments combined with new County and State leadership this year to create a perfect storm for revisiting the mandates of the Amended Consent Judgement (ACJ), which dictates how sewer pollution of Onondaga Creek and Harbor Brook should be cleaned up.
The Nation’s legal and environmental team was part of three months of intensive negotiations which resulted in Joanie’s decision to scrap the plans for the Armory Square sewage plant. The County will instead pursue use of green infrastructure in combination with sewer separation and storage, allowing sewage to be fully treated at the Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Facility and the rainwater to nourish the earth.
Too long have cities paved over every inch of nature, disrupting water cycles by keeping the water from the ground. Reconnecting rainwater with plants and the groundwater, and otherwise mimicking Mother Nature where possible, simply makes sense. These low-tech solutions will save local taxpayers money too, but the benefits to all who live in the area go much farther than the wallet, improving air quality, decreasing the urban heat island effect in the summertime, and generally bringing nature back into the lives of urban residents. This decision is a win for Onondaga Creek and everyone in the area, and Joanie deserves thanks for her courage to change the status quo.