Environment Column

Under Destiny USA is the Oil City, and it’s posing environmental problems for the construction of a hotel near the mall

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While shopping at Destiny USA, you would never imagine that your car was parked on top of a contamination site. And the resurrection of a new hotel near the mall will help the southern shore of Onondaga Lake wear a guise of good health. But this latest construction endeavor is unearthing an ugly memory of Syracuse’s past: Beneath the mall’s layers of concrete rests the remnants of Oil City.

As the hotel, Embassy Suites by Hilton, is built, the community has raised concerns about what contaminants may be disturbed in the construction process. Earlier this month, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation announced a proposed cleanup of the site and announced it is accepting written comments about the cleanup plan until March 2. Although the area — right on the shore of Onondaga Lake — doesn’t “pose a significant risk,” the proposal included a list of contaminants present,  none of which sound easy to get rid of.

In fact, the proposed cleanup plan won’t get rid of everything at all, which is typical for chemicals lurking in and around Onondaga Lake. Before a significant cleanup initiative helped decontaminate the lake, it was actually known as the most polluted lake in the United States, according to NPR. And residents of central New York appear apt to forget what it looked like not too long ago.

Before there was a mall, there was an oil tank farm run by major petroleum companies. After decades of abuse, the sandy soil and swamp absorbed the petroleum that been pumped out by about 80 storage facilities, according to an Onondaga Lake Management Plan Status Report.

There are a lot of hard questions that need to be asked before the cleanup plan is approved, said Lindsay Speer, director of Creating Change Consulting, an organization that works with grassroots groups, nonprofits and native nations.

“People should take a look at what’s being left there,” Speer said. “There’s so much waste left behind, so much contamination left behind … I won’t say that their plan is bad, but it’s a question of whether it’s good enough.”

The contaminants in question are mostly petroleum by-products such as volatile organic compounds and polyaromatic hydrocarbons that are “at concentrations above the restricted-residential use,” according to the proposal. They are gases that are dangerous once they accumulate in groundwater — such as the lake and its tributaries — and when they come into contact with humans.

Herein lies the problem: The plan won’t remove the contaminants, but will only simply stop them from leaking elsewhere. A capping system works by physically covering a contaminated site with barriers like metal, pavement or buildings to prevent contamination from spreading.

But as someone who has closely followed the remediation of Onondaga Lake for decades, Speer said plans like these are normally disappointing.

“Once these programs are done, people need to keep being reminded of what’s below,” Speer said. “We don’t want to do that. We don’t want to remind people that our tourist attractions are on contaminated sites.”

It’s a no-brainer that Onondaga Lake is better today than it was in the 1970s. But some capping systems are starting to move, and site cover has already proved unreliable.

“Caps fail,” Speer said. “That’s the reality of it. Sooner or later caps will fail and that’s what we see happening at the bottom of the lake.”

Since people can comment on the plan until March 2, Speer suggests asking what chemical agents will be used to treat the contamination and what by-products may occur as a result.

But people should also think about what it takes to help the lake return to a pristine state — the state the Onondaga Nation would like the lake to be returned to, according to the Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation website.

Repeating this vicious cycle of capping is a huge diss to the Onondaga Nation. As the believed location of the Haudenosaunee Tree of Peace, Onondaga Lake is a sacred site — one ravaged by industrial pollution. Instead of perhaps setting a capping precedent, this next remediation plan has the potential to be a step toward truly cleaning Onondaga Lake for what indigenous people call the seventh generation. These remediation projects aren’t for our lifetime, but for many more lifetimes to come.

At its core, this isn’t about Destiny USA or the new hotel. It’s about raising awareness. Residents of Syracuse need to be more in tune with their city’s past and demand better. Even if this one project is a small part of a larger, more complicated one, residents must ask more for Onondaga Lake. Putting sheets of metal over toxic waste will never fix the problem, and temporary solutions are not enough.

It’s time to start thinking long-term. It’s time to consider the seventh generation.

Morgan Bulman is a graduate magazine, newspaper and online journalism major. Her column appears weekly. She can be reached at mebulman@syr.edu and followed on Twitter @morgbulman.

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