Honeywell has restored and is beautifying a New York lake it turned into a toxic cesspool

Onondaga Lake is in central New York state, northwest of Syracuse. It’s about a mile wide and almost 5 miles long.

For many decades, the lake has brought little more than sickness and economic depression to the local communities. But from now on, it will be bring health, beauty and joy, as a lake should. A newly-completed restoration of the profoundly polluted lake not only removed toxins, but has set aside more than 1,400 acres of land for public use along the lake and its tributaries, restored wetlands, and extended the Erie Canal trail from a dead-end in Camillus to Onondaga County’s lake shore trail.

On December 20, 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior joined with the New York State Office of the Attorney General (NYSOAG) and Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) to announce a proposed settlement with defense contractor Honeywell International Inc and Onondaga County related to contamination of Onondaga Lake, portions of its tributaries, and surrounding wetlands and uplands. Honeywell has agreed to pay $9.5 million in punitive damages and build 20 restoration projects. This penalty is on top of restoration costs of over $400 million.

With this proposed settlement, the communities of Onondaga Lake are one step closer to reclaiming this resource for the people and wildlife that live here,” said New York Field Supervisor David Stilwell for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “These funds would support both habitat restoration and protection for the benefit of fish and wildlife, as well as improved opportunities for people to enjoy Onondaga Lake and all that it could offer. We look forward to continuing collaboration with the state, county, Honeywell, and surrounding communities.”

The proposal would resolve claims brought under the federal Superfund law for damages to natural resources stemming from releases of mercury and other hazardous substances from facilities owned and operated by Honeywell (formerly Allied-Signal) and Onondaga County at the Onondaga Lake Superfund Site.

As part of its operations over many years, Honeywell knowingly dumped hazardous substances that contaminated Onondaga Lake, portions of its tributaries, and surrounding wetlands and uplands. Toxins from Onondaga County’s operations made their way into Onondaga Lake as well. Federal Superfund law seeks to make the environment and public whole for injuries to natural resources and ecological and recreational services resulting from releases of hazardous substances to the environment.

This proposed agreement is another significant step in the remarkable restoration of Onondaga Lake,” said Commissioner Basil Seggos of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. “DEC looks forward to the successful implementation of these projects and working with the community on the development of additional restoration work available under the settlement. The input from the public on the recovery of Onondaga Lake has been invaluable, and implementation of this restoration plan will return this unique natural resource to the surrounding community for use and enjoyment that has been unavailable for decades.

The proposed settlement requires Honeywell to implement and maintain 20 restoration projects to restore and protect wildlife habitat and water quality, and increase recreational opportunities at Onondaga Lake. Honeywell will also pay over $6 million allocated to restoration and preservation programs overseen by the federal and state trustees, Department of Interior, and the Commissioner of Environmental Conservation acting through NYSDEC.

Onondaga County will operate, repair, maintain, and monitor five of these restoration projects located on or adjacent to County parklands for 25 years. The settlement terms are outlined in a proposed consent decree filed in federal court in Syracuse, New York today. The total value of this proposed settlement is $26 million.

This settlement will help restore the precious natural resources of the Onondaga Lake watershed, bringing lasting benefits for future generations of Central New Yorkers to enjoy,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeff Wood for the Department of Justice Environment and Natural Resources Division. “This joint action with the Department of Interior and the State of New York is yet another testament to the value and effectiveness of cooperative federalism, and I am grateful to all of our partners for the efforts that brought us this resolution.”

This settlement marks a critical step toward returning Onondaga Lake to the community that surrounds it – requiring the investment of millions to restore and protect water quality, wildlife, and recreation,” said Bureau Chief Lem Srolovic for the Environmental Protection Bureau of the Office of the New York Attorney General. “We encourage members of the community to review the settlement during the comment period, and look forward to continuing to work in partnership to ensure the restoration of this remarkable natural resource.

This past August, the trustees, through U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the State of New York, issued a final restoration plan and environmental assessment plan outlining these 20 restoration projects to restore the Lake and wildlife habitat and improve recreational resources. This plan also included responses to oral and written comments received from the public on the draft plan during a 90-day public comment period, which included four public meetings and one public hearing held throughout Syracuse during the spring 2017.

Since 2008, Honeywell and the trustees have worked together to assess and identify potential restoration projects to benefit natural resources affected by releases of mercury and other hazardous substances. Some of the damaged natural resources include fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals. Recreational fishing opportunities were also impacted by mercury contamination.

After five years of remediation, Honeywell says its five-year cleanup of contamination in the bottom of Onondaga Lake is done. “Honeywell’s historic cleanup of Onondaga Lake is complete,” said their project manager, John McAuliffe. “Today, the water quality in Onondaga Lake is the best it’s been in more than 100 years.

Featured photo of Onondaga Lake with the Syracuse skyline in background is by Hotshotfox via Wikipedia.

Learn more about the restoration and see photos of the work at Syracuse.com.

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