The Dirty Saga of Onondaga County (Spring 2007)

Low-income Americans and people of color are fed up with the environmental racism that has been practiced by government at all levels.

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From the Spring 2007 issue of Ms. magazine:

Syracuse, in Onondaga County, New York, is like so many other cities across the United States: a place where the poor—a disproportionate number of whom are Black, Latino and First Nations peoples—live in a very different world from that of the wealthy and privileged. The poor communities often have highways that cut right through them, like Interstate 81 slices through the Black community in Syracuse. When I-81 was built, residents were uprooted and the entire community pushed to the south side of the city to make way.                                                           

Back in the late 1960s and early ’70s, immediately following the civil rights movement, city planners paved the way for white flight from the city by designing a highway and roads system that facilitated the development of suburbs while simultaneously creating a physical demarcation line between the worlds of rich and poor. The poor communities were left saturated with excessive noise, automobile exhaust and other pollutants; the rich ones were kept pristine.                                      

The civic leaders of Syracuse, like those in other places, put sewage and water-treatment plants, along with numerous other environmental hazards, within or very close to the city’s poor communities. Not surprisingly, the health problems experienced by residents of those communities as a result of the pollutants are tremendous.To take just one measure, the asthma rate of the predominantly African American community situated on the edge of Syracuse’s industrialized area and the interstate is 13 times higher than in the rest of Onondaga County. Women and children in particular bear the brunt of the health problems.                                                          

Syracuse also has the dubious distinction of being home to one of the most polluted bodies of water in the country, Onondaga Lake, along with a number of equally polluted streams—including Onondaga Creek, which, despite its name, is a sizable tributary. For almost a century, companies located on the lake’s shore disposed of their waste—some 165,000 pounds of mercury, as well as phosphorus and chlorine compounds—either on the shore or directly in the lake. Allied Chemical—now Honeywell—was the main culprit before its facility closed in 1988.

This toxic dumping seriously impacted water quality and left numerous hazardous waste sites around the lake, practically in the front yards of many of the affected communities.

Furthermore, the Syracuse Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Plant released phosphorus and ammonia from its treated waste into Onondaga Lake for many years. The lake ended up with extremely high levels of these chemicals, in addition to mercury, to various salts and other pollutants, including household and animal waste from farming runoff.                     

The county embarked on a cleanup plan years ago, and New York State stepped in as well, filing in 1989 a suit for natural resource damage (following the 1972 federal Clean Water Act) against Allied Chemical for depositing so much sediment on the lake bed and killing off aquatic life. But while much has been done over the last three decades, residents of the affected communities still feel that the cleanup job has been halfhearted and inadequate. If the impacted communities had been white and affluent, they strongly believe, it would not have taken more than three decades to complete the job.   

Small wonder, then, that many in these communities are now expressing their outrage, fed up with the environmental racism that has been practiced by government at all levels.                                                     

This is the context in which the grassroots nonprofit Partnership for Onondaga Creek was formed in 2000 and began to lead protests, which have continued to this day. The Partnership is challenging yet another sewage treatment plant on the city’s predominately African American south side.                                                       

Despite protests and offers of alternative plans, the Midland Avenue sewage treatment plant is now being built for $122 million (and growing) in an African American community that has been torn apart. Many longtime residents who were asked to move and whose homes were razed to make way for the plant have already relocated. Some residents chose to leave when the county bought their homes to make way for the pipelines; others stayed, even though they would prefer to leave but can’t afford to. For them, it is a troubled existence with no choice.                                                            

The plant will have an obtrusive 12-foot-diameter, milelong pipeline and will utilize aboveground storage and chlorine-based technology—despite the Partnership’s advocacy for underground storage and far less toxic sewage treatment. The chlorine technology has been especially distressing to community residents, as airborne chlorinated byproducts of sewage treatment are as harmful to humans on the ground as the toxic disinfectant byproducts are to the aquatic life in Onondaga Lake.

“The population at risk from this plant is one that government officials at all levels have historically never cared about,” said Aggie Lane, a spokesperson for the Partnership. “The extensive chlorination projected for use in this plant will do irreparable damage to the creek, the water and the south side community.”

Moreover, she emphasized, “We cannot pretend that the extremely high rates of asthma that we see in the community are not related to the high levels of toxins in the community.”             

South side community residents have long accused county officials of environmental racism—which the officials, of course, deny. The residents are familiar with and wary of excuses given by politicians concerning issues that affect their neighborhoods adversely. This decision to locate a toxic waste facility was no different. The Partnership for Onondaga Creek has argued that the county’s decision to build the plant is based on the fact that the south and west sides of the city are home to mostly poor communities. They point out that the north side communities produce tons of sewage, but a disproportionate burden for disposal of this sewage is shifted to the south side. Moreover, the partnership argues that county decisions serve corporate interests and the engineering and construction firms that will benefit from expensive contracts.        

The Partnership began its protest by focusing on better alternatives to the proposed plant, but by 2004 had shifted its focus to civil rights. Since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was providing a large chunk of the plant’s funding, the Partnership decided to file a race discrimination complaint under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The Partnership claims that Onondaga County was acting in a racially disparate manner: protecting its predominately white, middle and upper-class north side by building a small underground facility there, while tearing apart its poor and predominately African American south side by building the huge Midland plant. The EPA dismissed the complaint in early 2005, but the Partnership didn’t give up: It is now asking the EPA to reconsider its Title VI claim.                                                           

At Syracuse University, we have begun to examine the impact of environmental racism on nearby communities, with the support of a Ford Foundation grant. Next spring, we will hold a national symposium of scholars and activists to engage the issues of environmental justice and Black women’s health. Subsequently, we hope to use this information to gain the attention of state officials and encourage them to promote policies that support environmental justice.

Meanwhile, the Partnership for Onondaga Creek continues its struggle to protect communities from pollution and racism. It hasn’t stopped the plant, but is gaining some concessions (such as a state-of-the-art odor control system and a smaller facility) and stirring public debate. As Aggie Lane and Tarki Heath of the Partnership wrote in a recent paper for a conference at Howard University Law School, “Racism happens because we let it. …Only with public oversight, dogged persistence and committed resistance will equity become the enforced law of the land.” 

From Flint, MI to Newark, N.J., near identical crises to “The Dirty Saga of Onondaga County” have caused deep and lasting harm. Infrastructure is undoubtedly a feminist issue, with implications for economic, environmental, immigrant, racial and reproductive justice.

Among the girls and women leading the fight who have been featured in the pages of Ms. are fifteen-year-old Tiara Darisaw who spearheaded Children for Flint and organized bottled water drives; and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a physician and immigrant who was awarded the Freedom of Expression Courage Award by PEN America for her work to demand accountability in Flint.

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