Dec 11, 2011 Amanda Wada Uncategorized
Ironically, a European obsession with cleanliness eventually lead to Onondaga Lake being considered “the most polluted lake in America,” according to upstatefreshwater.org.
Soap manufacturing began in England in the 12th century, but was considered a luxury item, and fell under an English luxury tax until 1853, when the tax was lifted. Suddenly, late in the 17th century, soap was a hot commodity, and the soap industry expanded far beyond the English borders.
Sodium carbonate, or Soda ash, was an important component in the making of soap. It was also used for many other purposes including detergents, dyes, baking powders, as a component of glass making, dynamite and other chemicals.
Soda ash was in high demand around the world, but before the 1860s, its production was an expensive and lengthy process that resulted in multiple wasteful byproducts costing manufacturers money.
Ernest Solvay, a Belgian chemist, was on the case, working to develop a cheaper, less wasteful process to create soda ash. In 1872, Solvay patented the Solvay process. Rather than multiple byproducts, the Solvay process’s only byproduct was calcium chloride.
The Solvay process required two main ingredients: salt brine and limestone, two natural products found in abundance around Onondaga Lake in the 1800s. Recognizing the possibilities for soda ash production in Syracuse, and the high demand for the product, William B. Cogswell and Roland Hazard formed a joint venture with Ernest Solvay and his brother Alfred. The four entrepreneurs founded the Solvay Process Company in Solvay, N.Y., which began to produce soda ash in 1884 along the shores of Onondaga Lake.
The company ceased production of soda ash in 1986, after “approximately 6 million pounds of salty waste” from the calcium chloride byproduct of the Solvay process had been dumped in and around Onondaga Lake, according to onlakepartners.org.
For every pound of soda ash that had been produced, a pound and a half of waste had been left behind, said Ed Michalenko, president of the Onondaga Environmental Institute, an independent, not-for-profit organization dedicated to research, education, planning and restoration of the environment.
“I think it was market force as the number one reason, and environmental reasons behind that,” Michalenko said about the company’s decision to stop the production of soda ash. Around the same time, deposits of soda ash had been found in and around Wyoming and were being mined. “I think it came down to economics of the stuff being mined out west, and the environmental regulation. They were running out of space to put their waste.”
In 1920, the Solvay Process Company had been purchased by Allied Chemical and Dye Corporation. In 1985, Allied Chemical and Dye Corporation merged with Signal Companies and became AlliedSignal, a chemical production company. AlliedSignal merged with Honeywell in 1999 and changed its name for the last time.
The string of companies were not limited to soda ash production. The area around Onondaga Lake served as a boon for chemical production. “There was a variety of chemicals produced here,” Michalenko said.
“The Onondaga Environmental Institute is a non-profit organization whose mission is to advance environmental research, education, planning, and restoration in Central New York.”
In 1946, Allied Chemical and Dye Company (now Honeywell) began producing chlorine gas, which was used around the world in water treatment facilities, Michalenko said. By 1970, the industry had deposited approximately 165,000 pounds of mercury into Onondaga Lake.
“It’s hard to judge history because we always look back in our current mindset, and the mindsets back 100 or 200 years ago were wholly different,” Michalenko said. “As the city developed, you have to realize it developed during a period of time when there wasn’t sewage treatment, so there was always this chicken and egg spiral between the industry and the municipality. The municipality used the tributaries and the lake as a depository for their municipal waste, and the industries would justify them using it for industrial waste. And because it was used for industrial waste, the the municipalities would justify the continued use of the municipal waste so you kind of have this constant spiral between the industry and the local governments in the sense that as long as one was using it, it didn’t make sense for the other to clean up.”
The city of Syracuse, or “Salt City,” was developed around the salt springs that were discovered on the shores of Onondaga Lake in 1654 by Jesuit missionaries, who were shown the springs by the first Onondaga natives, the Onondaga Nation. In 1788, the Onondaga Nation agreed to a treaty that would allow commercial salt production, and production was in full swing by the end of the century.
The Erie Canal came to Syracuse in the 1880s and transformed the city. Onondaga Lake remained a popular industrial zone, and a recreational destination. Municipal and industrial waste continued to flood the lake and surrounding areas as the city of Syracuse grew.
It soon became a problem. An increase in ammonia and phosphorus decreased the oxygen level in the lake, which increased the algae level.
“Numerous historical sources including the oral history of the Onondaga Nation, the indigenous people of this area, agree that before the industrialization of the landscape, the Onondaga Lake watershed was a beautiful and bountiful place,” states the Historical Fisheries of the Onondaga Lake Watershed, a document produced by the Onondaga Environmental Institute.
Whitefish, salmon, American eel and lake sturgeon had been found in abundance in the lake and its tributaries, but after years of pollution and industrial re-habitation including damming and dredging, could no longer survive in the heavily altered habitat.
Onondaga County recognized the environmental threat, and banned ice harvesting on the lake in 1901. In 1940, a swimming ban was put into place. In 1960, the metro water treatment plant was opened in Syracuse, with subsequent updates to the plant in 1979, 1981 and finally in 2001.
With stricter environmental regulation, the chemical industry also began to change its practices. In 1992, AlliedSignal entered an agreement with the State of New York and began a feasibility study to restore Onondaga Lake. With the merger of Honeywell in 1999, the organization continued the study, and in 2004, submitted a proposed plan to begin work on the lake clean-up.
Next week, The Eagle will report on how the clean-up plan has progressed, and what Honeywell, the Onondaga Environmental Institute, and other organizations are doing to restore Onondaga Lake to health.
Feb 21, 2017