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The Onondaga Lake site is described as Onondaga Lake and any source that may be contributing to its contamination (e.g., hazardous waste sites discharging contaminants directly or indirectly via surface or groundwater into Onondaga Lake). The United States Environmental Protection Agency has entered into a cooperative agreement with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to produce a comprehensive site-wide remedial investigation/feasibility study, which will include a site-wide risk assessment. For the purposes of this public health assessment, the site is considered as Onondaga Lake and the surrounding shoreline. As more data become available on Onondaga Lake and subsites that may be contributing to contamination in the lake, an update of this public health assessment may be warranted.

Onondaga Lake is in the City of Syracuse and the Towns of Geddes and Salina in Onondaga County. The lake is surrounded by parks, industrial sites, waste beds and tar beds. The site is contaminated with many chemicals, including mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), petroleum hydrocarbons, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Potential sources for some of the chemical contaminants include the petroleum storage facilities (Oil City) which may be contaminating the lake sediment; the tar beds which are releasing compounds into the air that can be detected up to three miles away; and mercury, which enters the lake primarily from Ninemile Creek and the wastewater treatment plant. In addition, the lake is contaminated with fecal bacteria.

Recommendations for the site include further studies to identify the source(s) and extent of some contaminants, use of controls to reduce the amount of mercury and fecal contamination entering the lake, and the reduction of odors from the tar beds.

As part of past public health actions taken to prevent possible human exposures to contaminants in the lake, the New York State Department of Health (NYS DOH) has issued advisories about fish and wildlife consumption and no approvals have been given for operating public beaches on the lake shore.

Based on the information reviewed, the Onondaga Lake site is a public health hazard. Fish from the site are contaminated with mercury and PCBs at levels which have a high risk of adverse health effects. In the past, people eating fish from Onondaga Lake were most likely exposed to mercury and PCBs. The NYS DOH has issued an advisory recommending that no fish from Onondaga Lake be eaten. Some reports suggest that limited fishing may be occurring. In addition, fecal contamination of the lake continues to be a problem, especially during combined sewer overflows. The presence of fecal bacteria is an indicator of potential contamination by other microorganisms that can produce disease. Fecal bacterial contamination of the lake poses a potential health hazard to recreational users, particularly swimmers. Swimming in the lake is minimized since the NYS DOH has not permitted any public beaches along the shoreline of the lake. Because the primary routes of exposure to site-related contaminants are due to recreational activities at the lake, it is difficult to estimate the number of persons actually exposed. However, ATSDR and NYS DOH estimate that 216,682 persons are potentially exposed to site-related contaminants. This estimate, based on the 1990 census, is the total populations of the Towns of Salina and Geddes and the City of Syracuse bordering Onondaga Lake.

The health activities recommendation panel at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has reviewed this public health assessment to determine appropriate follow-up actions. The NYS DOH will continue community health education to the affected populations, including annual reviews and updates to the fish and game consumption advisories, as needed. The NYS DOH will evaluate measures to notify the public about the possible health risks associated with eating fish from Onondaga Lake. The NYS DOH will review additional data that are developed as part of on-going investigations of Onondaga Lake. If warranted, the NYS DOH will complete additional follow-up health activities based on these reviews.


A. Site Description and History

Onondaga Lake was proposed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) for listing on the National Priorities List (NPL) on May 10, 1993. The Onondaga Lake site is described as Onondaga Lake and any source that may be contributing to its contamination (e.g., hazardous waste sites discharging contaminants directly or indirectly via surface water or groundwater into Onondaga Lake). The US EPA has entered into a cooperative agreement with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC) to produce a comprehensive site-wide remedial investigation/feasibility study, which will include a site-wide risk assessment. This health assessment is being prepared, in part, in response to health concerns expressed by a former resident who lived near the lake. For the purposes of this preliminary public health assessment (PHA), the site is considered to be Onondaga Lake and the surrounding shoreline. As more data become available on Onondaga Lake and subsites that may be contributing to contamination in the lake, an update of this PHA may be warranted.

Onondaga Lake borders the City of Syracuse, the Towns of Salina and Geddes, and the Village of Liverpool in Onondaga County, New York (Figure 1, Appendix A). The lake is about 4.5 miles long and 1 mile wide, with an average depth of 38 feet and maximum depth of about 67 feet. Seven major tributaries flow into the lake, including Ninemile Creek, Onondaga Creek, Ley Creek, Harbor Brook, Bloody Brook, Sawmill Creek, and Tributary 5A. Water flows out of the lake via the Seneca River, part of the Barge Canal System, at the northwest end. The land bordering the lake consists principally of county parks (including Longbranch and Onondaga Lake Parks), a marina, industrial properties, commercial properties, tar beds (Semet residue ponds), waste beds (Solvay beds), wetlands, undeveloped brush land and highways (Figure 2, Appendix A). There are several facilities which are listed on the NYS DEC registry of Inactive Hazardous Waste Disposal Sites in New York State and may be sources of contamination to Onondaga Lake including the Salina Town Landfill, the Onondaga Nation Barrel Site, McKesson Environmental, the State Fair Landfill, the Syracuse China Landfill, Onondaga Lake Mercury Sediments, Allied - Willis Avenue site, Ley Creek PCB Dredgings, Allied - Semet Residue Ponds, Val's Dodge, General Motors (GM) - Fisher Guide Division, LCP Chemicals, Bristol Labs, Crouse-Hinds, Quanta Resources, Crucible Steel - Syracuse Operation and the Clark Property. Numerous petroleum storage facilities exist in the area known as Oil City immediately south of the lake. Petroleum soil and groundwater contamination have occurred in the Oil City area.

In the late 1800's and early 1900's, Onondaga Lake supported a resort industry based on recreational use of the lake waters. By 1940, the lake was declared unsafe for swimming (Onondaga Lake Management Conference, 1993). Swimming was banned by the New York State Department of Health (NYS DOH) in the 1960's because of unsafe levels of bacteria. Currently, there are no permitted public bathing beaches at Onondaga Lake because of bacterial contamination and water clarity problems. Prior to 1900, the lake also supported a commercial fishing industry with both cold and warm water fisheries. The lake was closed to public fishing in 1970 due to mercury contamination in fish. In 1986, fishing in the lake was reopened, and the NYS DOH issued a health advisory to eat no fish caught in Onondaga Lake or its tributaries to the first barrier impassable to fish (Appendix C).

The area near Onondaga Lake has had an industrial presence since the late 1700's. The earliest documented industry was a salt industry which operated from 1793 to 1908. Ice was harvested from the lake for both public and commercial use prior to 1901, when it was banned because of contamination. A large chemical industry (AlliedSignal, Inc. formerly Allied Chemical) developed in the area, and included manufacturing of soda ash, bicarbonate of soda, chlorine, benzene, toluene, xylenes, chlorinated benzenes, and naphthalene. Other industries present at one time or another included a fertilizer plant, manufacturers of pottery, candle manufacturing, vehicular accessories, steel, foundries, air conditioning, general appliances, electrical manufacturing facilities, petroleum storage, scrap yards, municipal dumps, pharmaceuticals, and transportation facilities.

Since the late 1800's, Onondaga Lake has received discharges of industrial and municipal waste. Presently, the most significant industrial pollutants in the lake appear to be mercury and various alkali wastes (e.g., chlorides, sodium and calcium). About 60 tons of mercury were discharged to the lake from the chlor-alkali process. Recent sampling indicates that ongoing releases from the closed LCP Chemical site (formerly operated by Allied Chemical) is responsible for a large portion of mercury entering the lake. High levels of mercury in the west flume of the LCP Chemical site drain into the lake via Geddes Brook and Ninemile Creek. About 100,000 tons/year of alkali wastes were released into the lake. These inorganic wastes increased salinity and calcium levels in the lake which affected normal mixing and caused extensive calcite precipitation. Other industrial pollutants including aromatic hydrocarbons, semi-volatile hydrocarbons, solvents, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), have also been found in the lake.

Several Orders on Consent have been signed between AlliedSignal, Inc. or its predecessor(s) and the NYS DEC regarding the waste beds, tar beds and groundwater contamination at the Willis Avenue Plant. In addition, AlliedSignal, Inc. and the NYS DEC signed a consent decree requiring a remedial investigation/feasibility study (RI/FS) to determine the type and extent of contamination in Onondaga Lake and identify alternatives for remediation.

Onondaga Lake has also received large volumes of raw sewage during most of this century. Sewage was either discharged from tributaries or directly into the lake. In addition to bacterial contamination, the sewage has caused severe eutrophication (i.e., increased mineral and organic nutrients and decreased dissolved oxygen levels) of the lake which affects the behavior of toxic compounds in the water. Throughout the 1900's, municipal sewage treatment capabilities were expanded. Currently, the Onondaga County Metropolitan Syracuse Wastewater Treatment Plant (Metro) has a tertiary treatment capability of 120 million gallons per day (mgd). When combined stormwater and sewage flow exceeds 120 mgd, the incremental flow above 120 mgd receives only primary treatment with chlorination before it is discharged into the lake. Until 1985, all combined sewer overflows (CSOs) entered the lake and tributaries directly. Since 1985, efforts have been undertaken to reduce CSOs; however, CSOs still occur about 50 times per year (Onondaga Lake Management Conference, 1993). The Metro plant is also a significant source for mercury entering the lake. A consent judgement directs Onondaga County to complete planning, design and construction of facilities to bring discharges from the Metro sewage treatment plant in compliance with regulatory requirements.

B. Actions Completed During the Public Health Assessment Process

The PHA process was initiated when the Onondaga Lake site was proposed for listing on the NPL in May 1993. Since that time, actions that have occurred as part of the public health assessment process include the following:

  • The NYS DOH reviewed recent NYS DEC data on chemical contamination of fish from Onondaga Lake and concluded that the health advisory recommending to eat no fish from Onondaga Lake or its tributaries to the first barrier impassable to fish be maintained in the 1994/1995 fishing season.

  • The NYS DOH has initiated communications with the petitioner of this health assessment and provided information about the status of this public health assessment.

C. Site Visit

Robert Montione of the NYS DOH visited the site in April 1992 and Ron Heerkens of the NYS DOH Syracuse Field Office has also visited the site on several occasions. In June 1994, Pat Fritz and Daniel Luttinger of the NYS DOH accompanied Robert Montione and Ron Heerkens on a visit to the site. Onondaga Lake borders the City of Syracuse. A portion of the City of Syracuse, commercial enterprises, Allied Chemical, and extensive bulk petroleum facilities (Oil City) dominate the southern shore. The lake is used for boating, crew races, wind-surfing, water skiing and related recreational activities, as well as commercial inland shipping. The northwestern shore is mostly open parkland and is used for boating, picnicking, hiking and other recreational activities.

D. Demographics, Land Use, and Natural Resource Use


The NYS DOH has estimated from the 1990 census that 216,682 people live in the Towns of Salina and Geddes and the City of Syracuse bordering Onondaga Lake. Of this population, 80.5% is of the white race, 15.6% is of the black race, and 3.9% is of other races. Within the three areas, 7.4% of the population is under 5 years of age, 22.2% is between 5 and 20 years of age, 55% is 21-64 years of age and 15.4% is 65 years or older. The median household income for the Town of Salina is $33,212, for the Town of Geddes, $30,957, and for the City of Syracuse, $21,242. The percent of families below the poverty level for the Town of Salina is 2.2%, for the Town of Geddes, 4.1%, and for the City of Syracuse, 17%.

Land Use

A large portion of the shoreline, including most of the northern half of the shoreline, is parkland. These areas are used for a wide variety of heavily attended special events as well as less formal recreational activities. A county owned marina within the park is also frequently used. Railroad tracks run along parts of the eastern shore of the lake. Commercial and industrial areas near Onondaga Lake are concentrated along the south and southwest shores. Several extensive alkali waste beds and tar beds are situated along and near the shoreline (Figure 3, Appendix A). The waste beds along the shoreline occupy about 1,360 acres and are composed of inorganic salts from the soda ash industry (Blasland, Bouck and Lee, 1989). The tar beds, which occupy about 22 acres, are composed of residue tars that were placed there by a former division of AlliedSignal, Inc. that refined coke light oil via fractional distillation. In addition, there are numerous hazardous waste sites in the region as well as petroleum contamination associated with the Oil City area. Residential areas exist along the northeast and western shorelines, although no residential property borders the lake shore.

Natural Resource Use

Onondaga Lake is classified by the NYS DEC as Class B surface waters, although some portions of the lake are classified as Class C surface waters. The class system is used to identify best uses of surface waters but does not necessarily mean that the lake currently meets the water quality standards for Class B or C water. The best usage of Class B waters are bathing and any other usages except drinking and food processing. The best usage of Class C waters are fishing and any other usages except for bathing, drinking and food processing.

The lake is presently used for boating, waterfowl hunting, and fishing. The intensity of usage for these activities is low. The lake is not considered suitable for swimming because of high concentrations of fecal coliform and poor water clarity. Reportedly, however, people occasionally swim in the lake. Within a three mile radius of the lake, it is estimated that about 700 people use shallow groundwater for drinking (NYS DEC, 1989). All of these groundwater supplies are upgradient of the lake. There are no known public or private potable water intakes in the lake. Syracuse relies on Skaneateles Lake as its primary drinking water supply but also has interconnections with the Onondaga County Water Authority which uses Otisco Lake and Lake Ontario. All are several miles away from Onondaga Lake. The Village of Liverpool and the communities around the northern and western portions of Onondaga Lake use water provided by the Onondaga County Water Authority.

E. Health Outcome Data

The NYS DOH has not evaluated health outcome data specific for the Onondaga Lake site. However, the NYS DOH maintains several health outcome data bases which could be used to generate site-specific data, if warranted. These data bases include the cancer registry, the congenital malformations registry, the heavy metals registry, the occupational lung disease registry, vital records (birth and death) certificates, hospital discharge information and water-related disease outbreak data. Two studies evaluating the incidence of cancer in Clay, New York, and also in the Towns of VanBuren and Camillus, New York were conducted by the NYS DOH (NYS DOH, 1985 and 1990). The findings of these studies are discussed in the Public Health Implications section (subsection B, Health Outcome Data Evaluation) of this PHA. Two other cancer incidence studies are currently in progress. One of the studies is being done for the Town of Geddes and should be completed by 1996. The other study includes the Village of North Syracuse and parts of the Town of Clay and the Town of Cicero. This study should be completed by 1997.


In 1990, a resident who used to live near Onondaga Lake expressed concern about the incidence of cancer among family members and others in the community of Lakeland, which borders Onondaga Lake. This former resident expressed concern about past disposal practices by the Allied Chemical Plant, which reportedly dumped wastes directly into the lake, and had health concerns about the risk of developing cancer because of the nearby chemical plant.

In August 1994, the NYS DOH received an inquiry about the occurrence of cancer among people living in Liverpool, a community within the Town of Salina which borders Onondaga Lake to the northeast.

Other community health concerns have centered on: 1) recreational use of the lake including swimming; 2) fishing and use of the shoreline; 3) odors emanating from the tar beds; and 4) health effects from the Oil City rehabilitation efforts.

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