The Lake Issue

Dredging America's Most Polluted Lake

Sacred to some, despoiled by others


Lindsay Speer and I make our way to the edge of Onondaga Lake as a freight train shuffles down the tracks behind us. It’s the first of three times this will happen as we stand where the mouth of a creek opens up into its waters. A nearby sign reads ‘A Sacred Lake,’ reminding visitors that this is the birthplace of Haudenosaunee Confederacy, “the first representative democracy in the West.” One that still exists today. Eagles perch on wooden piles that jut up from the water. Floating alongside shards of ice are traces of human life, the flotsam of the Syracuse: bottles, lighters, plastic bags, tampon applicators.

“Not too many of those anymore though,” Speer says, “But if I could tell anything to the women of Syracuse it would be, don’t flush down the applicators.” Because they might just end up here. During the summer the county runs a skimmer that’s supposed to take everything sitting on top of the lake’s inner harbor to be taken to a landfill. But it’s early March in upstate New York and the skimmer doesn’t take well to ice.

Onondaga Lake is not just a lake with a little trash problem. It’s not just a lake that sits 300 acres east of an industrial wastebed, or a lake that receives nearly 20 percent of its water from a sewage treatment plant. It’s not just another active superfund site that was a dumping site for mercury and chlorinated benzenes for decades. It is, and it can’t be understated, a lake with an exemplary pollution problem. Despite ten years of remediation efforts, it’s still the most polluted lake in the United States of America.