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FEATURE | spring 2007

The Dirty Saga of Onondaga County
In Syracuse, N.Y., activists for environmental justice-part of a growing national movement-prove how racism leaves toxins at the doorsteps of the poor and people of color.

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 Blacks, Latinos 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.

“Racism happens because we let it. Only with public oversight, dogged persistence and committed resistance will equity become the enforced law of the land.”
—Aggie Lane and Tarki Heath

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, 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 predominately 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.

Global warming still seems like a catastrophe of the future; while we are working to halt it, we shouldn’t forget the environmental calamities of today. Countless people already suffer from pollutants and toxins in the ground, air and water—substances allowed to proliferate because of weak or nonexistent government regulations and enforcement or, worse yet, because government colludes with powerful corporate and special interests. Too often, those paying the greatest price for toxic contamination are people of color and those living in poor communities. Their neighborhoods have become places where hazardous chemicals are released and waste management facilities are sited.

The struggle against this environmental racism—often led by women-of-color activists—is one for justice, health and survival. The story told here, about Syracuse, N.Y., is far from unique, but reminds us once again how such travesties occur—and that a growing environmental-justice movement is fighting back. —THE EDITORS

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.

After years of state, county and city political and legal wrangling over the cleanup, community residents’ distrust of government grew. Adding to their suspicion is the $550 million cost for local cleanup projects, and what they view as the close relationships between the county and various engineering firms and business contractors that stand to profit. 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. A coalition of neighborhood groups such as Syracuse United Neighbors, Syracuse Peace Council, Onondaga Nation, Syracuse University Student Environmental Action Coalition and the local chapter of the Sierra Club, 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, mile long 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 by-products 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,” says 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.”

Still, there is a dearth of information on the impact of years of environmental racism on the quality of community residents’ health, and how this plant would exacerbate that. According to New York State Department of Health indicators, Blacks and Latinos across the state have higher rates of asthma and diabetes. Throughout New York State, for example, recent asthma hospitalization rates among Blacks and Latinos, whether children or adults, have been consistently more than twice the rate for that of whites. Similarly, lifetime asthma prevalence increases with age for girls, making the rates higher among women than men.

While no direct link has been made between these health disparities and poverty or the environmental conditions in which people live, studies clearly show that these factors tend to exacerbate poor health. What is clear in New York and across the country is that greater allergen and toxic irritant exposure is responsible for adverse health conditions.

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.

The persistent pattern of environmental racism in Syracuse is neither new nor surprising; it’s a daily occurrence across the country. Witness New Orleans, the most horrifying recent example. While flooding affected all residents, it had a disproportionate impact on Blacks. Eighty percent of the city’s Black population lived in areas damaged by flooding, such as the Lower Ninth Ward.

At Syracuse University, we have begun to examine the impact of environmental racism on nearby communities, with the support of a Ford Foundation grant. The Department of African American Studies will be gathering information from community residents on how they view their communities in terms of the condition of women’s health. Next spring, we will hold a national symposium of scholars and activists to engage the issues of environmental justice and Black women’s heath. 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.


LINDA CARTY is a professor in the Department of African American Studies at Syracuse University.

JACQUELYN ACKEIFI provided research assistance for this article