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While Central New York gets its drinking water from elsewhere in the Finger Lakes region, Onondaga Lake served as the toilet for the region. Today, the sewer pipes are connected to the rainwater drainage and all that volume is just too much for Syracuse's sewage treatment plant to handle. The sewer pipes empty the excess sewage into Onondaga Creek through Combined sewer overflow (CSO's, open pipes where raw untreated sewage mixed with rainwater empties into the creek) which feeds directly into Onondaga Lake.
About ten years ago, Atlantic States Legal Fund sued the County in the Federal District Court under the clean water act to clean up the lake. The county choose to settle the suit by signing on to an Amended Consent Judgment (ACJ) which forced them to clean up the lake by certain deadlines. The county then decided that the technology which they would use would be the cheapest and most efficient to meet the standards that had to meet set out in the ACJ, which are similar to the standards in the clean water act. This technology uses vortex swirlers to remove the floatables but not the dissolved particles. The county would also utilize chlorination and dechlorination to treat the sewage chemically, but this process adds it's own health problems, most notably disinfection bi-products like chloroform and trichloroacetic acid are formed. To further minimize the cost, the county decided to place a Regional Treatment Facility (RTF, the facility that would house these swirlers and chlorination units) right on top of a local park in a lower class, predominantly black neighborhood. They plan on bulldozing over this public park and evicting over 27 families.
The county claims that this is the best spot geologically which is true, yet if this neighborhood was in a rich area, there would probably be more room to talk and negotiate over what gets done. For example, they would probably find an alternative so that the upper class people could keep their park, and the county could have their equipment below ground, or very near to the site. In any event, the county said, it's a done deal, and that there's nothing we can do about it.
So Syracuse United Neighbors (SUN) and the Partnership for Onondaga Creek decided to fight back. They got over 800 signatures on petitions and lobbied the Syracuse Common Council to not sell the land where the county plans on building this RTF. The city of Syracuse owns the land, but the Common Council decides whether or not to sell it. The county said that Syracuse has to sell the land, or the county will incur serious fines. Under the ACJ the county had certain milestones that had to be achieved, and if they weren't achieved, the county would have to pay a hefty fine. One of those milestones was to find and acquire a location for the clean-up site. The Common Council was put in a tough place. By selling the land, they would get a lot of benefits from the County, but if they did not sell the land, the County would holdback those benefits. The NAACP has filled a lawsuit accusing the County of environmental racism, but the courts take a long time to solve an issue. That's where SEAC comes in.
Under the leadership of Charlotte Noss, SEAC got involved with the campaign and held a rally and march last April, from the steps of City Hall to the County court house. The rally included talking about alternatives to building a Sewage plant and evicting the community members. We used guerrilla theater to convey the message that this is environmentally racist, that the rich and the businesses could buy off the County monster, whereas the poor could not, and so they got an RTF (visualized by the toilets we brought with us). Another skit we did showed the County chlorinating the (for lack of a better word) turds, and causing chlorine pollution. This pollution harms the citizens of the community, who were passing out flowers made by colored tissue paper and pipe cleaners. We then gave our demands to the County and told them that it wasn't a done deal.
The fall semester saw the continuation of our campaign and the next phase. SEAC started by getting petitions signed and proposing resolutions to the student government associations at both Syracuse University and SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry. We also planned a teach-in to get the student support first, then held actions to get the media's attention. The day after SU's Student association approved a resolution not to sell the land to the county, the Common Council held their vote.
SUN, NAACP, the Partnership, SEAC, and a few other participants went down to City Hall to see the mayor and to get his support for alternative actions. After that meeting, we packed the Common Council room and held signs saying "Not in Anyone's Backyard" and the like. The Common Council then decided unanimously not to sell the land to the county. They called the county arrogant, and a republican on the Council stated that people come before profit. It was a great victory for us, and it wouldn't be the last.
Back in early November of 2001 The Partnership, SUN, SEAC, NAACP, and a host of others had another rally at the steps of where the county legislators meet, where we told them our demands again, and let them know that we want an alternative to unsafe technology. Living machines, sewer separation and underground storage, so as not to remove this public playground, We also voiced our vision for Onondaga Creek, so as to make the creek an asset to the community, with bike paths and the ability to swim in it again. After our continued persistence, the county, city, and state agreed to start negotiations on what to do with the creek. The partnership asked for a seat at the negotiating table, and got it. In the beginning it was the same old rhetoric, that it would be too costly to implement alternatives (though while the county bickers about an extra 20 million to implement a safer alternative, the city is getting well over 900 million to build DestiNY USA, the proposed soon to be largest mall in America, providing hundreds of minimum wage jobs and increasing the tourism to upstate NY). Yet after our engineers showed the county how it could be implemented cheaper then an RTF, by using a variety of alternatives instead of just one, the county has all of a sudden said that an alternative is possible. But the battle is far from over.
As of recently the City has come to fully support the Partnership's plan for underground storage. On August 1st the City and the Partnership haeld a joint community meeting to inform the public about all the progress being made, with the hope that the County would announce their support, but as of Friday August 23rd, a crucial law-suit will be placed in the hands of a federal judge as to whether or not give the County eminent domain, the ability of the County to take the land, even though the City voted unanimously not to sell it.
The county is like an obsessed monster. Cut off its feet, and it'll grow wings. Cut off its wings, and it'll slither around till it bites you from behind. Nick Pirro, Executive of the County legislature has orchestrated a resolution of his own to the State legislature, asking them to allow the County to use eminent domain against the city to take away the land they want. Fortunately the State denied this request, yet the federal judge may still grant it and after the county's p.r. campaign, economic threats, and law-suits all failed, Nick Pirro finally came out saying that he'd look into alternatives. This could have two results, the first is that he is trying to save face and co-opt the plan and will eventually implement it. The second is that he will say that we looked at alternatives, and they were too costly, so back to the original plan. No matter what the outcome the people at the Partnership and in the community are strong and will not give up without a fight. And SEAC, no matter how hard the struggle, will be right along side of them.