Collaboration to find innovative sustainable solutions is a hallmark of SyracuseCoE, perhaps best
exemplified by the academic-industry cooperation to clean up Onondaga Lake. The lake that surrounds
the northern part of Syracuse was long known as one of the most polluted inland lakes in America,
contaminated both by industry and household pollutants coming from a regional wastewater treatment facility.
In 2004, the Onondaga County Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment plant (Metro) began advanced
treatment of wastewater to address some of the negative effects caused by high nutrient inputs. The water
quality improved. But Syracuse University Professor Charles Driscoll, who has studied the water quality
of Onondaga Lake for more than 25 years, noticed something else: the mercury levels in the lake’s fish
were dropping too.
“It was an Aha! moment,” says Driscoll, a Syracuse University faculty member with an international
reputation for his work on water quality issues.
Inorganic mercury in sediments can be converted to methylmercury, which can bioaccumulate in high
concentrations in organisms, specifically the fish that populate the lake. “That’s why even low concentrations of
mercury in water can result in very high concentrations of mercury in fish,” explains Driscoll. “The discharges
of nitrate from Metro limited methylmercury production, but didn’t completely shut down the process.”
A SyracuseCoE collaborative study between Syracuse University and the Upstate Freshwater Institute (UFI)
was undertaken to address the seasonal and year-to-year variability in mercury in the lake resulting from the
water quality improvements.
As a result, Driscoll, a UFI boardmember, began working with UFI, Honeywell and local engineering firms
to devise a means to treat the lake’s mercury contamination by adding additional nitrate. “We’ve gone from
theory, to getting information on how to implement this, to building devices, to installing them and applying
the technology, which has never been tried elsewhere in the world,” says Driscoll.
Honeywell International is well underway in a $451 million cleanup project to remove waste and chemical
contamination from the lake. The cleanup includes dredging that will continue through at least 2016. Also
in a three-year pilot test, Honeywell engineers are adding calcium nitrate to the water right above the
sediment/water interface. “It settles to the deepest part of the lake and essentially shuts off the production of methylmercury,” says Driscoll, who is monitoring the results with fellow researchers.
Driscoll’s research on mercury pollution was previously supported by SyracuseCoE, with a $100,000 grant
in 2008 to analyze mercury pollution in Lake Ontario and surrounding watersheds. In addition, SyracuseCoE
cosponsors annual scientific forums on Onondaga Lake with Syracuse University, SUNY-ESF, and the UFI.
At the end of the three-year study, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and the
Environmental Protection Agency will examine the data and determine whether the operation should
continue. “So far, it’s been an unbelievable success,” says Driscoll.
“It’s been a team effort, really a model for the kind of collaboration SyracuseCoE promotes.”