by Delen Goldberg
Syracuse, NY — How much has Central New York lost because of the pollution that has fouled Onondaga Lake for decades?
What effect has generations of no swimming and fishing had on residents?
And what must be done to make Onondaga Lake healthy again, able to support wildlife, recreation and culture?
Those are among the many questions a newly formed lake council will aim to answer — and assign a dollar amount to.
Members of the Onondaga Lake Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Trustee Council are embarking on a years-long process to determine how pollution from manufacturing and business hurt Onondaga Lake and the people of Central New York.
Council members — who include representatives from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Onondaga Nation — will assess the damage done and negotiate a settlement with polluters, on behalf of the public, to restore the lake and its watershed to its natural glory.
“The responsible parties pay damages, and the damages must be used to restore the natural resources,” said Joseph Heath, lawyer for the Onondaga Nation.How much could that amount to?
“We’re a long way from numbers because there’s so much studying that needs to be done,” Heath said. “I don’t think anybody is talking about whether it’s $100 million, $40 million or $10 billion yet.”
The process remains separate from the ongoing lake clean-up projects Honeywell International and Onondaga County have undertaken. You might think of it like this: If the lawsuit that forced the clean-up of Onondaga Lake is seen as a “criminal” case, the Natural Resource Damage Assessment would be the corresponding civil lawsuit.
“The idea is, let’s figure out what the mercury and the other 26 chemicals of concern have done to the fish, to the eagles or the herons, to the turtles,” Heath said. The council will examine different aspects of the lake, with the hopes of coming to a consensus about the damage done. Based on those findings, trustees will try to negotiate a monetary settlement with polluters. Money will pay for projects to restore the lake, such as creating wetlands or building fishing access points.
“It can either be cooperative, or it can be lawsuits,” Heath said. “The idea is to get Honeywell to work with us. And obviously, cooperation will be cheaper and quicker and better.”
Honeywell spokeswoman Victoria Streitfeld said the company “looks forward to working with everyone who has an interest in remediation of the lake.”
Streitfeld also noted that Honeywell already is actively involved in habitat remediation as part of its $451 million agreement with the state to clean up Onondaga Lake. And while a natural resources settlement is likely years away, Heath and members of the Onondaga Nation say they are encouraged by the formation of the council, and their inclusion in it. For years, the Onondagas have complained about being left out of lake negotiations.
“It means so much for us to be recognized because this is our original area, our traditional living grounds,” said Jeanne Shenandoah, an Onondaga health and environmental activist. “Our teachings, our way of life, we’ve always been told to protect Mother Earth and look out for everyone. It’s not just for us that we’re concerned about the lake and the water. We’re concerned about everybody’s health and well being.”
-Delen Goldberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 470-2274