Progress Toward Onondaga Lake Restoration

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.”