Onondaga Lake (Central New York state)

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Onondaga Lake (Central New York state)

Onondaga Lake (Central New York state)

Onondaga Lake is a lake in Central New York located northwest of Syracuse, and considered by many to be the most polluted lake in the United States.

Onondaga Lake is traditionally regarded as the birthplace of the Haudenosaunee, also known as the Iroquois Confederacy. The five tribes of the Iroquois nation were at constant war, threatening the existence of the nation itself.   At some point in time, prior to European contact, a Great Peacemaker brought together the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca nations on the shores of the lake. These warring nations accepted the Great Peacemaker’s message of peace, laid down their weapons, and formed the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.  George Washington, in an effort to maintain peaceful relationships with this powerful Indian nation, sent the Haudenosaunee people a six foot long wampum belt with thirteen figures representing the thirteen states linked with figures representing the Iroquois nation tribes.

In spite of the early gestures of peace, commerce. industry and diseases such as malaria gradually forced the Iroquois away from the lake , a place they considered sacred.  By the early 19th century, completion of the Erie Canal led to industrialization and a new rail line made this area attractive for vacationers from as far away as New York City.

The presence of salt and limestone became the foundation for heavy industry.  The Solvay Process Company was incorporated in 1881, with a major product being soda ash, a material significant to many industries.  Producing up to 20 tons of soda ash per day, the plant dumped most of its waste material directly into the lake.  As early as 1907 the state of new York threatened legal action against Solvay if corrective measures were not taken, but little changed. In 1920, the Solvay Process Company merged with four other chemical companies, forming Allied Chemical and Dye Corporation. Mercury-contaminated waste was now being dumped directly into Onondaga Lake. By 1970, it was estimated that Allied Chemical was dumping up to 25 pounds of mercury per day into the lake, leading to a suit by the US Attorney General.  These companies remerged and changed names a number of time, eventually closing in 1986.

In addition to the industrial dumpling, the city of Syracuse used the lake within its waste and sewer processes. Other industries drilled through the sand and into the water tables, using the water as a cooling agent before dumping it back into streams and the lake, increasing the saline level of surface water.

Since the Clean Water Act of 1973 and other federal and state initiatives, there have been numerous law suits, consent decrees, remedial investigations and feasibility studies.  Perhaps the most telling is the lawsuit initiated by the five nations against the state of New York, the city of Syracuse, Onondaga County, Honeywell International Inc., Clark Concrete Company, Hansen Aggregates and its subsidiaries, and Trigen Syracuse Energy Corporation.

Embedded in this suit is the Onondaga Nation’s 21st-century “Vision for a Clean Onondaga Lake” which states that the waters, plants, fish, shore birds, and animals of the lake are an intrinsic part of the people’s existence. The Onondaga view the restoration of the lake as a personal responsibility and are working to make sure that the lake is clean enough so that people may again drink its water, eat its fish, and swim in it.

My friend, Angela Riccardi Maroun, suggested this location.  She lives in the area and now is able to enjoy walking around the lake a few times each week.  In this piece, I used the arrowheads to recognize the significant history of the peace treaty originally formulated on these shores.  Tyvek, a synthetic polyethylene product, was used to represent the toxins still churning beneath the surface of the lake.  The deep waters of the lake are and will always be contaminated, as shown by the green depths raising to the blue and cleaner surfaces and the vision of the Onondaga Nation’s vision will be difficult to achieve.

Onondaga Lake (Central New York state), detailDetail image