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Pollution at Onondaga Lake
David H. Roche , 6/15/2006 1:25:35 PM

Onondaga Lake: A reality, a challenge, and a metaphor

The history of Onondaga Lake could be considered a microcosm of the history of the way that the earth has been treated by its most intelligent inhabitants. As a race, humans are facing a debacle of the most serious proportions. There is the eradication of the rain forests that affect global climate. There is the loss of glacial ice that provides drinking water for large populations, without which these populations and the land they live on will become uninhabitable. The oceans are showing wear and tear including disruption of the food chain with a resultant loss of marine life. The human inhabitants are the only ones who can do anything at all about these occurrences. It remains to be seen what the priorities are. At the present time the future does not appear hospitable for those who have future generations in mind.

The discovery of salt springs by natives of the Iroquois Confederacy in 1654 along the shores of Onondaga Lake and the subsequent development of commercial salt production along the shores of the lake in 1793 lead to its eventual demise.

As a result of the discovery of this natural resource a number of industries grew up along the shores of the lake. The lake itself was used as a means of transporting this product, as was the Erie Canal, which was completed in the early part of the 17th century. The canal became known as "the ditch that salt built" due to its use in the transportation of salt throughout the state.

Because of its natural beauty, the lake was a tourist attraction and contributed to the local economy, hosting hotels, amusement parks and restaurants while attracting people from as far away as New York City. Onondaga Lake fish were caught and served in restaurants around the state.

It wasn't long before the existence of this natural resource drew industry to the lake shores. As it turned out, this was a major factor contributing to the death of the lake as a natural resource and recreation. Beginning in 1884, the production of soda ash began under the auspices of the Solvay Process Company, which later became the Allied-Signal corp., and in 1918 an organic chemical industry also came into being. Raw sewage was dumped into the lake by the city of Syracuse, a problem only partially controlled by the development in 1960 of the Onondaga County Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Plant (METRO) and the pollutants from industrial enterprises along its shores degraded the quality of the lake so severely that by 1940 it was declared unsafe for swimming. By 1970 fishing was banned.

The Federal Clean Water Act in 1972 and the Resource Recovery Act of 1976 along with applications of both Federal and State funds have addressed the pollution of the lake. Some progress has been made, but swimming is prohibited and the fish that are able to live in the lake are not recommended for eating.

The extent of the damage to the lake is catastrophic. The volume of pollutants that have been introduced into the lake is mind boggling. In 1884 The Solvay Process Company commenced producing soda ash. The result of this was the co-production of chloride, sodium, and calcium wastes which each had a debilitating action on the lake. These wastes were dumped into the lake at the rate of six million pounds daily by the Solvay Process Company alone. One result of this was the calcium carbonate formations which accumulated on the bottom of the lake as a result of the dumping. Even though the soda ash production was closed in 1986 by Allied-Signal Corporation, who succeeded the Solvay Process Company, there are still salty wastes entering the lake as a result of the prior manufacturing activity.

The net effect of this discharge was to raise the salinity of the lake water as well as a reduction in available oxygen levels available to support life in the lake. The salinity of the lake became exorbitant. Compared to what is naturally found in the oceans of the world which is 3.5% salt by its weight, the salt content in Onondaga Lake was 0.30% in 1986. In an attempt to discount the negative activity of the industries along the lake shores, some have indicated that the salinity of the lake is due to the natural deposits of salt along the lake. This is a generally discredited theory. Evidenced by the fact that since the production of soda ash ceased and the subsequent discharge of waste has stopped, the salinity of the lake has decreased to 0.10% by weight. The salinity of the lake remains higher than normal because of the Solvay waste beds located along Nine Mile Creek. It has been estimated that if this effect could be eliminated that the salinity would be reduced to 0.05% which is closer to the natural salinity of nearby fresh water lakes, but not as low as that of nearby Otisco Lake which has a salt content of approximately 0.03%

The effect of increased salinity in the lake and adjoining waterways has been to reduce the diversity of aquatic life. As well, the accumulated calcium carbonate deposits have eliminated habitats for biological life along the shore of the lake. The increased salinity is also responsible for a stratification of the water in not only the lake itself but also in the Seneca River. The river, being a moving body of water would not ordinarily display such levels of stratification but due to the influx of salinity from the lake it occurs in the river as well. This stratification of the water results in a loss of oxygen in both bodies of water. Loss of oxygen equates to loss of aquatic viability.

One important result of this disruption of the oxygenation of the water is that the cold water fish that once were abundant in Onondaga Lake can no longer survive there. These fish require at least 5 milligrams of oxygen per liter of water and cannot survive in the lake any longer. This is a catastrophic event too. The loss of oxygen in the lake is so severe that an equivalent deficiency has not been reported in the upper level of any other lake in the United States. Many may not remember but at one time Onondaga Lake was abundant with game fish including: Atlantic salmon, Ciscoes, known as 'Onondaga Lake White Fish', and Lake Sturgeon among others. These fish were not only game fish, caught for sport, but were commercially caught and sold to restaurants as far away as New York City.

By 1920, the Atlantic salmon and Onondaga Lake Whitefish were severely diminished. In 1927 only 9 species were identified in the lake and in 1946 13 species were able to be found. By 1950 90% of the fish populations in the lake were carp.

The pollutants

The problems that affect the lake are myriad. Most, if not all, stem from the misuse of the lake by those that have had the opportunity to access it. Other pollutants to affect the lake are as follows.

Phosphorous. Phosphorous is a plant nutrient. The input of phosphorous into the lake is known as phosphorous loading. It stimulates the unnatural growth rate of algae and this growth in turn consumes the available oxygen in the water, which in turn has an effect on the viability of fish life. Every action has its inevitable reaction.

The increase in algae also has a negative effect on the clarity of the water which precludes the use of the lake for swimming. State law requires that the water clarity be 4 feet or greater through out the summer. Currently this clarity is met only one day out of two in that period.

Phosphorous in the lake has its origins from two sources. Discharge from treated domestic and industrial waste from the city of Syracuse which accounted for 65% of the phosphorous loading. The remaining 35% is attributed to runoff from surrounding land and untreated sewage from overflows into the lake.

The phosphorous loading over the last 20 years has been reduced but a significant amount of improvement has not been achieved. More reductions in the phosphorous loading must be realized before any significant improvement can be made.1

Nitrogen compounds in the form of ammonia and nitrite are also discharged into the lake at levels that exceed state standards. The levels have not reached the point where there have been fish-kills but other negative effects have been realized in relation to the lakes ecosystems. For instance spawning and migratory patters of fish life have been disrupted and neighboring waterways, the Seneca River, have been adversely affected by an increase in ammonia levels that exceeds state standards.

As with phosphorous, the major source of ammonia pollution in the lake is the City of Syracuse's METRO waste disposal system which accounts for 90 % of the ammonia discharged into the lake. Another 4% is attributed to Allied-Signal Corps. most active waste beds on Nine Mile Creek.

Seven million cubic yards of sediment have been estimated to have been contaminated with mercury. Mercury is a metal that is transformed by the processes associated with bacterial activity in aquatic systems into Methyl mercury. To give an idea of the toxicity of this substance, if the mercury in one fever thermometer were converted into Methyl mercury it would produce enough toxic potential to render the flesh of 10,000 large mouth bass unfit for human consumption. So it is not surprising that flesh of fish in the lake has been found to have levels of mercury contamination in excess of federal food standards.

The source of this mercury contamination is not a mystery. The Allied chlor-alkali facility discharged and estimated 165,000 pounds of mercury into the lake between 1946 and 1970. The sediments on the lake bottom have now been classified as a hazardous waste site.

But even now with dumping suspended the lake is still being contaminated with mercury. Ongoing studies have indicated that high levels of mercury are still entering the lake from Nine Mile Creek, as well as the City of Syracuse's METRO waste disposal system. In 1970 a ban was placed on eating fish caught in Onondaga Lake and its tributaries. Another associated problem occurs too, in that the fish in Onondaga Lake freely travel to the Seneca River where they may be caught and eaten.

PCBs and chlorinated benzenes have also been found in the lake but they do not produce the concern that the mercury contamination presents because the mercury contamination is found to be more persistent in the flesh of the fish. In 1994 several sites associated with the lake, including the lake bottom, were added to the federal Superfund National Priorities List (NPL). Some of these sites are those operated by Allied-Signal (Honeywell). There are, as well, 10 to 15 other sites not owned by Honeywell that are being evaluated by the DEC to determine if they should be added to the overall Onondaga Lake Superfund.

Combined sewer overflow (CS0s) are a source of pollution to the lake as well. This too has it's origin with the City of Syracuse and its METRO waste disposal system. Under normal conditions the waste of the city is treated at the METRO plant with sodium hypochlorite which acts as a disinfectant killing bacteria and viruses responsible for causing disease. But during heavy storms when rainfall places excessive demands on the sewer system there is a fear of flooding. To avoid this a system is in place, combined sewer overflows (CSOs) that allows raw untreated sewage to be dumped directly into the tributaries of the lake. This bypasses the treatment facility at METRO and allows bacteria and viruses to indirectly enter the lake causing public health concerns. There are a total of 63 such CSOs each with the potential of contaminating the lake. The result of this untreated dumping into the lake is that for up to three days after a storm the southern half of Onondaga Lake is contaminated. This activity results in a violation of public health standards. In an average summer there are 18 such storms that call for the utilization of CSOs resulting in 54 days of public health violations. The results of this preclude using the lake for swimming.

Sediment loading is another problem affecting the lake. There is some dispute as to the cause of the phenomenon. Some sight Allied-Signal's solution mining activities in the area as a cause, but this is not documented and the cause is not determined. What is known is that the sediment loading into Onondaga Lake comes from the Tully Valley mudboils. The effects of the mudboils are to reduce habitats for aquatic insects and other marine life associated with bottom dwelling. Fish spawning and plant growth along with substantial sediment loading into Onondaga Lake also occur.

The mudboils are the result of the pressure of underground water flowing and causing a movement of mud and soft sediments. Over the years substantial amounts of sediments have entered the lake. Between October of 19991 and March of 1992 the United States Geological Survey estimated that 30 tons of sediment a day was present in Onondaga Creek. Since then the construction of damns and the diversion of water away from susceptible areas has resulted in reducing the amount of sediment flow into Onondaga Creek to less than one ton a day.


The demise of Onondaga Lake gives a concentrated look at the world at large. It becomes a metaphor for the way that human life impacts the rest of life. While instances of natural destruction and 'pollution' are realities they are not the only reality in the equation. Not only that, nothing can be done to prevent natural disasters. For instance in New Orleans nothing could have prevented Katrina, however man could have seen to it that the levees were adequate and the flooding from the storm could have been prevented.

This gives us an idea of what the human race should do and what its responsibilities are with regard to the environment. Only human beings can prevent pollution only man can put his energies into maintaining a desirable life on the planet. What remains to be seen is will he accept the responsibility?

Copyright 2006 by David H. Roche

1. Information gathered here.

2. The Onondaga Lake Partnership is the source for all of the information regarding the pollution of the lake in this article. It is an extensive and well documented site and will give a good underpinning to anyone interested in understanding now natural systems are interconnected and how they affect each other.

About the author: David fancies himself a utopian dreamer who enjoys writing poetry and being in love. He takes pride in being a cultural subversive as well as being a refugee from the Berkeley riots and card carrying member of Woodstock Nation.

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