By Amelia Labuszewski, contributing writer
For nearly one hundred years, Syracuse’s own Allied Chemical (now Honeywell) and many other companies dumped industrial waste into Onondaga Lake. The list of chemicals is long and disturbing. But in 2005, the plans to right past wrongs began to synthesize, with Honeywell taking full financial responsibility.
The Honeywell remediation of Onondaga Lake seems to be progressing. They’ve buried a steel wall to prevent the travel of pollutants, constructed a tube that will transport contaminated materials to a waste site, and begun dredging. They’ve planted thousands of plants and trees with hopes to restore ecosystems, plan to cap any polluted sediments that remain, and they’ve trained locals to help with the process. But is this enough? Have they forgotten anything?
Joseph Heath, member of the General Counsel to the Onondaga Nation has worked with the Nation for over seventeen years. He is passionate about what they do, focusing largely on environmental matters, such as anti-fracking, and most importantly, Onondaga Lake. “The lake is a sacred place to the Onondaga,” Heath says. “It’s the birthplace of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy: the oldest [participatory] democracy on earth.” It was this confederacy that inspired the United States Constitution.
Loss of their sacred lake has been devastating to the “People of the Hills.” Long ago the lake and all of the original Onondaga territory (Central New York, from Canada to Pennsylvania) was illegally acquired by New York state. Today the Onondaga live on a reservation south of Syracuse. It is a tiny bit of what they once called home. Their stewardship is crucial because it has spiritual meaning. The Onondaga are part of a web of life, and it defines them. This web once contained many unique species and habitats, some of which were quite rare. The Onondaga relied on these plants and animals, both in spirit and utility. They especially relied on the fish, which “made up most of their diet,” Heath says.
Heath says that the work being done at the lake is better defined as a remediation, and calling it a cleanup is “far from accurate.” Heath explained the many reasons why this “clean up” is insufficient: the budget is far less than what was originally proposed; the only areas receiving attention are certified Superfund sites; the cap of sand that is planned to contain left over contaminants will be six inches in some areas; the steel wall probably won’t last long; the original habitats once found in and around the lake, and many rare plant and animal species, have been forgotten.
There is a lack of Native perspective in media surrounding the cleanup. A plethora of information exists concerning the lake, but not much credit to the Nation, who worked hard to put together the Onondaga Nation’s Vision for a Clean Onondaga Lake (Vision), which can be found at their website OnondagaNation.org.
Dr. Robin Kimmerer, a professor in the Environmental and Forest Biology Department at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF), the director of the Center for Native Peoples, and a member of Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation (NOON) explains, “Indigenous perspectives are frequently marginalized and absent from the public dialogue. The Nation has a significantly different approach and philosophy about the lake cleanup based on their cultural philosophy, and I wish it was more widely understood and embraced by the public, through the media.” She endorses the Vision “which takes a biocultural approach to restoration and demands higher standards for the cleanup.”
Even students at Syracuse University (SU) and SUNY-ESF are frustrated. Ira Huff, part of the Tonawanda Seneca, Hawk Clan, is an English textual studies major and native studies minor at SU. “I want my children to be able to take their children down to Onondaga Lake someday and tell them that this Lake is the heart of the Haudenosaunee. I want them to be able to speak about how beautiful the Lake is, how she reflects the strength of our people. I want them to be able to say all of that, but then also I want them to be able to swim and fish in the Lake. I want them to be able to enjoy the Lake. I want all the generations that will follow mine to be able to enjoy the Lake. But right now, I don't see that happening,” Huff says.
It is through a different lens that we find creative and innovative solutions. By keeping an open mind to differing thoughts, ideas and philosophies we are better enabled to find common ground. Ground where everyone’s voice is heard. Luckily there is still hope for the Onondaga Nation, as they have neighbors, friends and allies who understand the need for change.