Can We Save Onondaga Lake?
Onondaga Lake in Syracuse, N.Y., has been known by many as the most polluted lake in the United States. This lake, once serving as a popular tourist attraction, has been polluted for over 125 years with municipal sewage and industrial waste. In 1940 swimming in the lake was banned, fishing was banned in 1972, and it was added to the Federal Superfund National Priorities List (NPL) in 1994. The NPL is a list of hazardous waste sites eligible for long-term cleanup efforts financed under the federal Superfund program.
A coalition of agencies began the cleanup effort in 1999 for sewage pollution and in 2007 for chemical waste. Now, Onondaga Lake is entering the final stage in a one billion dollar cleanup. By the time fishing was banned in 1972, the fish population had declined greatly, but now the lake is home to over 60 species. Recently, over 150 people casted their lines into the lake as part of a fishing derby. While the progression in the cleanup has been significant, there’s continuing concern.
Sid Hill, a leader of the Onondaga Nation, calls the cleanup project an expensive Band-Aid. “In seven generations, that’s still going to be a Superfund site,” Hill says. Workers will soon be suctioning up 10 feet of toxic mud in parts of the lake where 20 pounds of mercury was once dumped every day. Even after this project, 85 percent of the lake’s bottom will remain untouched and polluted. Ken Lynch, a regional director for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, has a more optimistic view and believes the Onondaga Lake will become swimmable again, which will increase the public’s appreciation of it. Crews will soon being testing equipment to that will hydraulically remove contaminated material from 185 acres and capping more than 400 acres of the lake bottom with a thin layer of clean sediment. The completion of these projects in 2018 will accomplish the anticipated goals of making Onondaga Lake fishable and swimmable.