Environment Column

After Standing Rock, fight against pollution of indigenous lands continues for Onondaga Nation

Frankie Prijatel | Senior Staff Photographer

Women march from the Geo Dome in the Oceti Sakowin camp on Thanksgiving Day to show support after the initial wave of protectors gathered at the river.

The rallying cry against the Dakota Access Pipeline, “Mni Wiconi,” is universal: Water is life.

Much like Lake Oahe — a sacred burial site and main drinking source for the Standing Rock Sioux Nation in Cannon Ball, North Dakota — Onondaga Lake and Onondaga Creek were desecrated. Like Lake Oahe, Onondaga Lake is central to a native group, the Haudenosaunee — or the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy — to which the Onondaga Nation belongs. As the alleged birthplace of the Tree of Peace and game of lacrosse, the Onondagas have deep, ancestral ties to the area.

On Friday, people standing in solidarity with Standing Rock will go to Washington, D.C., to protest the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline in the nation’s territory. Although there is no pipeline planned to cut through Onondaga Nation lands, there are many parallels between the Standing Rock Sioux and Onondagas — the biggest being the sacredness of their respective lakes — and the Onondaga deserve solidarity as well in their fight to clean up the polluted Onondaga Lake.

Onondaga Lake shouldn’t be sacred to just the Onondaga Nation — it should be sacred to everyone. Residents of Syracuse should demand more from officials for the lake’s cleanup because the solution lies in the power of people uniting together under a common cause. It’s time Onondaga County and the city of Syracuse gave the Onondaga Nation a designated spot on the lakefront for traditional uses after the county went back on its 2011 promise to give the nation Murphy’s Island, a 36-acre piece of land behind Destiny USA.

Students and local residents are forgetful that Syracuse University and neighboring towns like Fayetteville, Liverpool and Watertown were built on Onondaga Nation land — land that once stretched across the Jefferson, Oswego, Cortland, Tioga and Broome counties in New York state. But the nation’s land has been reduced to a 7,300-acre territory just six miles south of Syracuse.

Hickory Edwards, who belongs to the Onondaga Nation, has a special connection to water and is an avid canoer. Edwards has traveled from home to Albany, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and Canada to raise awareness about water pollution. He’s also traveled more than 1,500 miles on five different occasions to deliver donated supplies to the Water Protectors at Standing Rock and take part in the resistance.

“It just feels like it keeps on going and going,” Edwards said about communities’ drinking water being polluted. “We’re wearying, but we have to keep fighting. It doesn’t feel like it should be an issue at all. We need water. Why do we need to fight for clean water?”

As a vital resource, it’s shocking when a pipeline — especially one that will carry half a million barrels of oil a day from North Dakota to Illinois — is legally allowed to threaten such a basic necessity and human right. Since 2010, nearly 9 million gallons of crude oil have leaked from American pipelines, per Business Insider.

In early December, the Army Corps of Engineers announced they would look into alternative routes and conduct a proper environmental impact statement after legal battles over water safety increased. The analysis should have taken roughly a year to do, but shortly after President Donald Trump was sworn into office, he reversed that decision by signing an executive order granting easement to DAPL’s completion. That action also included the possibility of resurrecting the once defeated Keystone XL pipeline.

“He didn’t lie when his whole campaign said he was going to America great, but he didn’t say for who,” Edwards said. “He’s going to make America great for the businesses, for the corporations, not for the people.”

Business, like pipelines, always seem to win over both people and the planet.

Each year Syracuse gifts the Onondagas with salt and other material goods in observation of a treaty that essentially allows the city to lease the land. Once used as a natural resource by the Onondagas for growing medicinal herbs, crops and to fish, Onondaga Lake was transformed into an industrial wastebed after being the dumping site for soda ash, petroleum and other chemical byproducts of waste. The Onondaga Lake amphitheater was built in that wastebed area, but Justin Sayles, a county spokesman, said in a statement that the amphitheater has been cleared for public use.

“No site that has been more studied or monitored than the Lakeview Amphitheater site,” Sayles said. “In fact the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the New York State Department of Health and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation have all certified the amphitheater site to be safe for the public.”

Still, swimming in the lake was banned in the 1940s. In the summer of 2015 county officials held a swim-in to demonstrate the progress of the mandated cleanup of the lake. The swim-in was supposed to prove the lake was officially safe, but only the northern half of the lake is actually safe to swim in.

The remediation plan in place to clean the lake is more about hiding and trapping the problem instead of actually improving it. There’s more than can be done in order to sustain the lake for future generations.

“They need to do more than the caps they put on that have slipped a couple times and will slip more,” Edwards said. “We need to get this lake back to roughly of what it half used to be.”

In a time when bipartisanship appears to be dividing the nation, without a planet there will be no reason to fight over issues of race, sexuality, gender equality or guns. Putting the planet first is long overdue, and it starts by tackling local issues of environmental injustice, especially when it comes down to such a basic right as clean water.

Morgan Bulman is a graduate magazine, newspaper and online journalism major. Her column appears weekly. She can be reached at mebulman@syr.edu and followed on Twitter @morgbulman.

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