Perception problem one of many hurdles facing Onondaga Lake beach

Perception issue among hurdles facing Onondaga Lake beach

Proposal stalled by negative public new of the lake, disagreement over whether or not its cleanup is complete and a lengthy government process.
Published: May 9, 2018 | Updated: May 14th, 2018 at 11:45 am
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Take a right at Exit Seven off of Interstate 690 West by the New York State Fairgrounds and, hidden from view by construction and heavy machinery, you might miss the Honeywell Onondaga Lake Visitors Center. A sign meant to guide drivers lies on its side nearby, knocked down, and the center only opens to the public on Friday, unless by appointment.

On a dreary, rainy Wednesday morning last month, that left only two reporters and a greeter overlooking the south side of Syracuse’s notoriously polluted lake.

Across the water, on the northeastern side, Travis Glazier oversees Onondaga County’s study that envisions residents filling a beach along its shores. But a combination of the negative public perception of the lake, disagreement over whether or not its cleanup is complete and a lengthy government process leaves the dream distant from reality.

Honeywell is not involved with the beach idea, said Victoria Streitfeld, the communications director of the company pressed with cleaning up Onondaga Lake.

Glazier, Onondaga’s environmental director, will work nearby all year as the county received a grant from New York’s Local Waterfront Revitalization Program to evaluate the feasibility of a beach. The grant is valued at $330,000, according to Syracuse.com.

He expects the study to occur across the eastern shoreline through the end of 2018, and analyze a beach’s infrastructure, waves, the surface, sand, market, ecology, archeology and overall impact.

“Onondaga County owns about 95 percent of the shoreline and we don’t have a public beach, so there’s no way for people to legally (enter) into the water outside of having a boat,” he said. “But the … northern two-thirds of the lake are perfectly acceptable for public bathing and swimming.”

Not everyone agrees. A Camillus Facebook community group post regarding a possible beach incited a negative response.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea for a beach at Onondaga Lake,” said Ruth Clark, a Syracuse resident. “That lake stinks, and I know Honeywell said they have cleaned it, but I don’t believe all that stuff that was put in there is gone.”

Others reminisced on its past status as an attraction, applauded the concept in theory but not in practice, or suggested alternatives such as a boardwalk. Few endorsed swimming.

That negative perception by the general public of the lake, for decades known as the most-polluted in the United States, remains even through cleanup efforts required of Honeywell by a 2007 court order.

“The lake’s got a bad reputation,” said Charles Driscoll, an environmental systems and engineering professor at Syracuse University. “I think it’s slowly improving. And the water quality … is better than a lot of lakes. … I would hope that cooler minds would prevail and there would be a public swimming beach.”

Syracuse’s city wastewater treatment facility contributes 20 percent of the flow of water into the lake, Driscoll said. During dry periods, that can rise as high as 50 percent. That, combined with population and industry growth, low oxygen levels and high amounts of ammonia, nitrite, mercury and phosphorus, yielded an environment unsuitable for humans, fish or birds through the mid-to-late 1900s.

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Honeywell and the treatment facility’s insertion of nitrate helped slow the further release of phosphorus and mercury from sediments, Driscoll said.

“Phosphorus is a big part of the problem,” he added. “It’s largely associated with the wastewater treatment plant and it’s what spurs the growth of algae and nutrients, and causes the clarity problems in the lake.”

Visibility and bacteria measurements hold the keys to legal swimming. Due to the fact that Syracuse’s sewers combine waste and rainwater, heavy precipitation events overload the treatment facility, causing the plant to send untreated human waste into Onondaga Creek before it assimilates into the lake toward Seneca River.

“Nature can handle a certain amount of sewage. Onondaga Lake’s a pretty big lake, so if it’s just a very small amount of sewage going in, then it gets diluted,” said Cliff Davidson, an engineering professor specializing in storm water management.

The discharge of raw sewage into Onondaga Creek, which Driscoll estimated occurs around 60 times per year, will require oversight of bacteria levels, said Jeff Till, the Onondaga County Health Department engineering director. The county will review historic data of bacterial measurements during certain weather events, require testing and shut down the beach if bacteria levels exceed standards.

Till said the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation approved swimming in the lake’s northern portion, but the county must undergo an in-depth evaluation of all aspects of the beach, which will include the biological and chemical contents of the water, including mercury.

If all standards are met, he said, they would deem minimal risk in lake swimming. No proposal has been sent to him yet, and he added he only recently heard of the idea, but that the process could move quickly once funding is initiated by legislature.

About 1,000 years ago, Onondaga Lake hosted the creation of the Great Law of Peace, an oral constitution between the six Native American nations comprising the Haudenosaunee. It served as an influence to western democracy and awarded sacred status to the lake, said Phil Arnold, founding director of the Skä~noñh Great Law of Peace Center.

Part of that agreement held that the Onondaga and other people under the law become “stewards of the natural environment,” meaning they believe that the lake should be restored to its original state, said Joe Heath, general legal counsel for the Onondaga Nation.

He said that Honeywell only partially cleaned the lake, “saving themselves billions” and said the former Allied Company assumed a “user-friendly” name by rebranding as Honeywell in 1999 after they amassed over 100 superfund sites across the country.

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The goal for remediation, he said, should be creating “water clean enough to drink” and “fish clean enough to eat.” By building an amphitheater on a waste site, capping sediments on the lake’s bottom and continuing to unleash sewage into the water, the government has not met these standards.

“There is no safe level of mercury,” he said, adding he would not allow his grandchildren to swim there.

Arnold said there is a difference of opinion between the Onondaga Nation, the DEC and Honeywell on what defines clean. His organization supports the Onondaga vision.

Glazier said the county maintains an open line of communication with the Onondaga Nation about the beach proposal, which will be submitted as a study and design plan to the county’s legislature by next year. He also said they are in talks to allocate land to the nation.

Until county officials take action on it, the southern end of the lake remains busy with the construction of a pump station and repaving roads near the Visitors Center, but not with local citizens.

Onondaga Lake’s comeback is in the works, but its reputation still supersedes the science. Driscoll said it poses no greater risk than any other beach for swimming. Yet even its ardent supporters concede to its shaky past and uncertain future.

“You can have the cleanest wastewater treatment plant in the world,” Driscoll said. “But it’s still a wastewater treatment plant.”

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is a contributor to The NewsHouse at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.