State: Lake pollution greater than reported
Honeywell doesn't challenge study that assigns it more responsibility for mercury.

February 07, 2003

By Mark Weiner, Staff writer

Onondaga Lake's industrial pollution is greater and more widespread than previously reported by the lake's biggest polluter, the former Allied Chemical complex in Solvay, according to a new state investigation.

In the state's most extensive study of the lake's industrial pollution, scientists found mercury pollution throughout the lake and its sediments. The study concluded that more than 65 percent of the mercury still leaking into the lake today is from Allied's former operations.

Honeywell International merged with Allied in 1999 and is responsible for paying for the cleanup, which could total hundreds of millions of dollars and take years to complete. Honeywell must come up with cleanup plans and cost estimates by May 31.

The industrial cleanup is separate from Onondaga County's $380 million, 15-year program to stop polluting the lake with sewage. That cleanup began in 1998.

Honeywell's own study of its industrial pollution was rejected by the state in 2001. The company claimed it was responsible for less than half of the mercury still entering the lake. It also said mercury deposited by Allied in the lake's sediments over decades was not a major source of contamination.

The state's report, the result of a new analysis and rewrite of Honeywell's work, found otherwise.

"Clearly under this report there is more extensive industrial contamination from Allied/Honeywell than was previously reported," said Ken Lynch, regional director of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

"We now know more about the lake bottom and the impact of hazardous waste than we have ever known before," Lynch said. "Now we can make the important decisions on how to clean the lake bottom. We've also defined the extent of contamination in the lake itself."

The findings are contained in a seven-volume, 8,100-page set of studies made public this week. The state paid for the studies but will send the bill to Honeywell International of Morristown, N.J. The state is still determining its costs.

Last year the state rejected Honeywell's $2 million study of the Onondaga Lake pollution, which was supposed to answer questions from a rejected $7 million study completed several years earlier.

Now the issue of dueling studies may be put to rest. Honeywell had until Jan. 30 to challenge or dispute the state report but allowed the deadline to pass without raising objections.

"I consider it a major milestone in moving the hazardous waste portion of the lake cleanup forward," Lynch said of the new report. Looking ahead

John McAuliffe, Honeywell's manager of remediation and evaluation services in Syracuse, said the company still differs with the state on some aspects of the study.

"We chose not to formally dispute the state's revisions because we believe the best approach is to move forward with the next phase of the cleanup," McAuliffe said Thursday.

He said the company wants to do its share to restore Onondaga Lake.

"We continue to be committed to working with the DEC and local government to achieve the shared goal of improving the quality of the lake," McAuliffe said.

The state's new study suggests Honeywell researchers minimized or failed to fully account for pollution levels in several areas, including:

Mercury contamination found throughout the lake's sediments. The highest concentrations are in the Nine Mile Creek delta and along the southwestern shore where Allied Chemical deposited waste extending beyond Harbor Brook, according to the state study.

The amount of mercury buried in the sediments. The state said mercury contaminates the upper 6 feet of the lake's sediments. At the Nine Mile Creek delta, mercury was found extending to a depth of at least 15 feet in the sediment.

High concentrations of heavy metals such as lead, nickel and zinc in the top 6 feet of sediment throughout the lake.

Concentrations of mercury in the lake's water. The contamination is highest in the near-shore areas around both Nine Mile Creek and on the southwestern shore, where Allied deposited waste, the state said.

The chemical contamination still entering the lake today. The state found the chemical pollution entering the lake is at least five times higher than the contamination leaving the lake.

In releasing the report, DEC Commissioner Erin Crotty issued a statement affirming the state's support for the lake cleanup.

"Onondaga Lake is making a remarkable recovery and we are continuing to obtain vital information to support our efforts to clean up and revitalize this important resource," Crotty said.

The commissioner did not elaborate or say what specific evidence indicates the lake is recovering.

A DEC spokesman in Albany said the commissioner was referring, in general, to water quality improvements in recent years that are not related to Onondaga Lake's industrial pollution.

The state will sponsor a public session to discuss the results from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the New York State Fairgrounds.

Staff from the DEC, state Health Department and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will be available to answer questions in the Martha Eddy Room of the Art and Home Center. No formal presentation is planned.

"This is such a huge document, it's hard to explain in one presentation," Lynch said. "We decided it would be better to spend time one-on-one with the people who have questions." County's view

David Coburn, Onondaga County's environment director, said county officials are still reviewing the state's report.

"In simple terms, it's a vast improvement, but there's a long way to go," Coburn said.

For years, County Executive Nicholas Pirro has accused Allied and Honeywell of shirking their responsibility by attempting to shift blame for their pollution. Pirro was especially outraged when Allied claimed 24 percent of the ongoing mercury pollution comes from the county's sewage treatment plant in Syracuse.

"The reports done by Honeywell in the past were an obvious attempt to shift the blame and liability away from themselves," Coburn said. "What the state has done here is a vast improvement over what Honeywell has done."

Coburn said the county still has concerns about some technical shortcomings in the state's report.

The state also conducted a human health risk assessment, and attempted to quantify the pollution's impact on fish and wildlife living in and around Onondaga Lake. The state officials who conducted those studies were unavailable for comment Thursday.

Henrietta Hamel, the state health official in Syracuse familiar with the study, referred comment to officials in Albany, who had no response Thursday.

Mary Jane Peachey, the DEC's regional engineer in Syracuse, said it was clear the state had significant differences in its study as compared with Honeywell. She was asked if Honeywell intentionally tried to mislead state officials.

"I don't know if there was an intentional effort," she said. "I'm sure they had their reasons for doing what they did. But we felt strongly that enough key elements needed to be changed that we needed to do it ourselves."

2002 The Post-Standard.