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CNY Progress Report: Onondaga Lake Cleanup is Moving Along

CNY Progress Report: Onondaga Lake Cleanup is Moving Along

More than a hundred years ago, ice harvesting was banned on Onondaga Lake because the city had dumped too much untreated sewage into the water. In the 1940’s swimming was banned, and thirty years after that, fish in the lake were deemed too poisoned by mercury to be eaten.

But in the last few years, something remarkable has happened. The news coming from Onondaga Lake is suddenly very different. In mid May a 5-mile stretch of paved path—the Onondaga Lake trail—opened on the west shore to joggers, walkers and bikers. County Executive Joanie Mahoney is unveiling plans for an amphitheater. The cleanup project that began after the lake was declared a Superfund Site is nearing its end, and there have been some unexpected successes in the process.

The cleanup has been a heroic group effort, with people from Central New York playing key roles.

In 2011, scientists from the Upstate Freshwater Institute, working with engineers from Parsons Corp. deployed an experimental treatment using calcium nitrate to essentially farm bacteria that crowds out the mercury-consuming bacteria in the lake bed. That allows the mercury to settle into the sediment, and keeps it out of the food chain, and out of the water.  As Glen Coin wrote in the Syracuse Post Standard last year, mercury levels in the water have been cut by 95%.

Craig Milburn, Managing Partner at Brown & Sanford Consulting recently spoke to a group at the Syracuse Technology Garden and described the long cleanup process. The project was long and complicated says Milburn because, “before we started to clean up Onondaga Lake, we had to clean up the other sources of contamination which led to the lake.”

Craig Milburn Consultant for the Onondaga Lake Cleanup Program

Craig Milburn, managing Partner at Brown & Sanford Consulting, and consultant manager to Honeywell for the Onondaga Lake Cleanup Program

“This cleanup project is focused on industrial operations from predecessor companies,” Craig Milburn pointed out, “those areas are where Honeywell has responsibility for cleanup, that’s where some of the manufacturing took place.”

The goal of the environmental engineers on the project is to recreate the natural environment for the native wildlife by dredging the lake bottom, stripping it of sediment to the base clay level.

The dredging and capping of the lake bottom isn’t simple. The cleanup involves a complicated filtering system that draws contaminated sediment rom the bottom of the lake and sends it to a processing plant where mercury is extracted. The decontaminated clay is then returned to the lake bottom to form the new capping.

The outlook for Onondaga Lake has suddenly improved drastically.

The outlook for Onondaga Lake has suddenly improved drastically.

Around the lake, native vegetation is chosen for integration into the environment. Students working with the Onondaga Lake Conservation Corps have planted over 50,000 trees. Now, a total of 56 different animal species can already be found in the area, including painted turtles and water birds.

Sustainability and low-impact technology has been an important concern for the engineers. Milburn says the project uses solar power as much as possible for water pumps in the treatment plant. Even the decontamination process is designed to be low impact. The project uses a pipeline to transport the contaminated material instead of using trucks, which has saved a trip every minute since the project began, says Milburn.

Onondaga County also a major contributor to the project, and Milburn notes “the county hasn’t receive enough credit for what they’re doing.”

While Honeywell’s focus has been on restoring the fishery and abating the mercury, Onondaga County is taking a more holistic approach to the problem. The County’s aim is to restore the lake for recreation use. Their chief concern is whether residents can swim and fish in the lake safely. Right now, Craig Milburn mentioned, “the water quality of the lake is the best it’s been for 100 years, it’s very much on par with Oneida Lake.”

That’s not to say there isn’t controversy. Treating the industrial waste beds completely is one demand that the Onondaga Nation has insisted on. Joe Heath, the lawyer representing The Onondaga Nation says Honeywell must be forced to clean all the toxins out of the lake, and their pressure has helped ensure a careful and rigorous approach to the cleanup.

The County, has said that capping the waste beds is sufficient, and on this point the Environmental Protection Agency has agreed. Based on that, plans are proceeding to cap the waste beds and build an amphitheater, but everyone is cautious. Thanks to the efforts of the Onondaga nation, no construction will proceed without further health testing, specifically for vaporizing chemicals. Everyone agrees that good public health science has to drive this project.

Central New Yorkers have dreamt of a restored and healthy Onondaga Lake for decades, and suddenly the promise is seeming like a possibility. After the current project ends in 2016, the maintenance of the lake will be handed over to the community, and the Onondaga Lake Conservation Corps.

To learn more about the Onondaga Lake Conservation Corps or participate in future activities, please contact Chris Lajewski at or call 315-365-3588.

About The Author

Yutao Tan

Master of Science in New Media Management


This site celebrates the people places, and culture that make Central New York one of the most vibrant and livable regions in the country. From Auburn to Utica, from Syracuse, to Ithaca, this is LivableCNY.

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