State Plan: $449M Lake Cleanup

DEC proposal for Onondaga Lake is nearly twice as much as Honeywell's approach.

November 27, 2004

By Mark Weiner, Staff Writer

The state wants Onondaga Lake's biggest industrial polluter to spend about $449 million over seven years to clean toxic waste from the lake bottom, state environmental officials plan to announce Monday.

Graphic: Onondaga Lake's Extreme Makeover

Honeywell International will be asked to pay for the second most expensive environmental cleanup in state history to address more than 82 tons of mercury and other chemicals dumped into the lake over the course of a century by its predecessor, Allied Chemical.

The state cleanup plan will cost almost twice what Honeywell International proposed this summer when it submitted its own cleanup plan. Honeywell wanted to dredge and cap portions of the lake in a three-year project that would have cost $237 million.

Erin Crotty, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said the state's plan marks one of the most significant milestones in the 15-year state effort to force a cleanup of Allied's waste.

"I think it's another historic event in our journey to clean up Onondaga Lake," Crotty said in an interview Friday. "We really believe, and the governor believes very strongly, that Onondaga Lake needs to be restored to its full potential. I feel that for too long Central New York has lived with this lost resource."

When the industrial cleanup is combined with Onondaga County's ongoing $425 million, 15-year project to stop polluting the lake with sewage, almost $1 billion will be spent cleaning Onondaga Lake, one of the most polluted in the nation. The lake is among three on the federal Superfund list of toxic waste sites.

The state's proposal would make the Honeywell cleanup the second most expensive in state history, surpassed only by General Electric dredging operations to remove PCBs and other chemicals from the Hudson River. That cleanup is expected to cost at least $460 million.

The state's Onondaga Lake cleanup plan was greeted with mixed reaction Friday. Some political leaders praised the state's plan, but the Onondaga Nation said the effort still does not go far enough in restoring the lake, historically part of its most sacred land.

A spokeswoman for Honeywell International had a brief comment on the state's plan.

"We're committed to continuing to work with the state to finalize an approach and implement a remedy once the proposed plan is released," said Victoria Streitfeld, a spokeswoman at Honeywell headquarters in Morristown, N.J.

"The company's proposal submitted in the feasibility study takes into consideration years of scientific and technical analysis," Streitfeld said. "We will continue to refine the plan during the DEC's public comment period."

Streitfeld declined to elaborate.

The major difference between the DEC and Honeywell plans is the amount of dredging and capping of the lake that will be required.

The state wants Honeywell to dredge up to 2.65 million cubic yards of mercury-contaminated sediment at depths ranging to 30 feet, Crotty said. Honeywell had proposed dredging 508,000 cubic yards from the lake bottom.

The state's plan also recommends building a cap over 425 acres of lake bottom, as well as a thin cap over about 154 acres in the deepest parts of the lake. Honeywell had proposed capping 347 acres with clean sand and other materials.

The state's plan would take three years for design work and four years for construction, as compared to three years for the Honeywell plan.

Under the state's plan, the most contaminated sediments would be sent to a toxic waste landfill outside of Central New York. Sediments not considered hazardous would be buried in a portion of the old Allied waste beds on the lake's western shore.

"The proposed remedy is a significant step toward cleaning up Onondaga Lake," Crotty said. "The public has been very patient, and I think today is a significant step toward the restoration of the lake."

Walsh 'favorably impressed'

Rep. James Walsh, who has secured at least $130 million in federal aid toward Onondaga County's effort to stop its sewage pollution of the lake, said the state's cleanup proposal for the industrial pollution appears to be a significant effort toward restoring the lake.

"This really sounds to me like everyone has stretched themselves to make an effort to make this the time and the place and the plan to clean up Onondaga Lake," said Walsh, R-Onondaga. "I'm very favorably impressed with this agreement. This is light-years from where we were 15 years ago."

The state sued Allied Chemical in 1989, saying it had polluted the lake and its shoreline through the operations of its chemical plant complex in Solvay, on the lake's western shore. The Allied plant closed in 1986.

Walsh has insisted that any cleanup plan involving the state and Honeywell must pass the scrutiny of government officials and independent scientists, who have been critical of Honeywell's cleanup proposals in the past.

Walsh said the burden Onondaga County taxpayers could have faced would be eased by Honeywell's financial investment in the cleanup when it is combined with the county's $425 million effort to stop sewage overflows into the lake.

"We're talking over $1 billion that's being spent on the lake," Walsh said. "That's roughly $20,000 per person it would have cost if we had to do this on our own. Now Onondaga County residents will have put up maybe one-tenth of the cost of the Onondaga Lake cleanup."

Others are not convinced the plan will result in a clean lake.

Onondagas: 'Inadequate'

Joseph Heath, lawyer for the Onondaga Nation, said the state's $449 million cleanup plan "is very incomplete, and is entirely inadequate."

Heath said the entire bottom of the lake is polluted, and the proposed cleanup doesn't address that.

"This plan cleans up perhaps 19 percent of the problem, and it's not acceptable to us," Heath said. "It would leave more than half of the toxics in the dirt and then the plan proposes to cap them."

Heath said capping isn't acceptable because wave activity on Onondaga Lake stirs up the lake bottom, and the sediment also is constantly agitated because groundwater continues to feed into the lake. He added that capping a portion of the lake's bottom with toxic chemicals still in the sediment just covers up the problem.

Onondaga County Executive Nicholas Pirro said he's not surprised to hear the DEC recommended a more costly plan than the one proposed by Honeywell.

When the state sued Allied in 1989, Pirro said he remembers suggesting the lake cleanup would cost $300 million to $400 million, and in today's dollars that's pretty close to what's being recommended, he said.

"If Honeywell has agreed to the plan, then it's a step forward," Pirro said, noting he understood Honeywell might fight the DEC's recommendation in court if it was too much over the company's recommended $237 million cleanup.

Pirro said he hasn't had a chance to review details of the plan, but said his main goal is that it not leave the county liable if anything goes wrong down the road. "If there's a problem with the plan, we just want to be sure Honeywell still remains responsible, and it doesn't fall back on someone else," he said.

The county has set aside money to hire professionals to analyze the plan, and Pirro said they'll look at it closely and submit detailed comments during the public comment period.

The state will accept public comments on the plan until March 1, much longer than its usual 30-day period. "We want to have a very robust public comment period," Crotty said.

Staff writer Elizabeth Doran contributed to this report.

2004 The Post-Standard.