AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Onondaga Lake in Syracuse, New York, has often been called the most polluted lake in America. It's been contaminated with raw and partially treated sewage from the city and its suburbs as well as a century's worth of industrial dumping. But the final stage in a $1 billion dollar cleanup is about to begin. David Chanatry with the New York Reporting Project at Utica College has our story.
DAVID CHANATRY, BYLINE: Standing in his office amid stacks of reports, Steve Effler is glancing at some old newspaper headlines.
STEVE EFFLER: "Divers Find Goo in Onondaga Lake."
CHANATRY: Goo was just part of the problem. Effler created the Upstate Freshwater Institute, and he knows more about the four and a half square mile lake than anyone. But back in the 1950s, before he was a scientist studying the lake, he was a kid riding by in the back seat of his parents' car.
EFFLER: I'm going like why are we rolling up the windows? The lake stinks. I said the lake stinks? Why does the lake stink? Oh, pollution. Now, back then pollution was almost like a new word, but the lake was so bad that you had to roll the windows up.
CHANATRY: By then, swimming had already been banned for more than a decade. Because of mercury contamination, fishing was banned in 1972, not that there were many fish in there. Effler says there was so little oxygen, fish often swam right out of the lake. But now on a warm summer day, about 150 people are casting from Onondaga's shore.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPLASHING)
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Mom, Dad. He caught a carp. Mom, get it. Scoop it.
TAMMY PENGARO: Six inches.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Six inches.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK. We gotcha!
CHANATRY: They're part of a fishing derby, and many are first timers here, like Tammy Pengaro and her three children.
PENGARO: My kids have caught a lot of bass, perch, sunfish, bluegill. And I was surprised to see that there was even those different fish here in Onondaga Lake.
CHANATRY: More than 60 species now, compared to about a dozen at the lake's low point. The lake was so bad for so long that few people alive even remember when it had beaches and boathouses and an amusement park on its shore. Its remarkable turnaround is still not fully appreciated by many residents here.
It's come after a decades-long fight, using federal environmental laws and the courts to force remedial action. Sam Sage of the Atlantic States Legal Foundation says there was no political will to take on a costly cleanup of both raw sewage and toxic waste dumped mostly by the Allied Chemical Company.
SAM SAGE: The municipal people could always say, well, we're not the problem, Allied's the problem. And Allied could say we're not the problem the municipality is the problem. And as far as I'm concerned they were in cahoots with each other.
CHANATRY: Sage filed suit and Onondaga County eventually agreed to upgrade its sewage treatment plant. Now comes the superfund half of the job. Workers had begun suctioning up to ten feet of toxic mud from parts of the lake where as much as 20 pounds of mercury were once dumped every day. John McAuliffe is the project director for Honeywell, the successor to Allied Chemical.
JOHN MCAULIFFE: Picture a big shop vac underwater, OK, with a cutter on it. The cutter breaks up the sediment and it's drawn up the pipeline like a shop vac would.
CHANATRY: Honeywell has already cleaned factory sites and built an underground barrier wall to keep contaminated groundwater from seeping into the lake. Still, the project will leave 85 percent of the lake bottom untouched. Sid Hill calls that an expensive Band-Aid. He's a leader of the Onondaga Indian Nation. He says the cleanup's not sufficient for a site that has important historic and cultural significance to his people.
SID HILL: In seven generations that's still going to be a superfund site. For that amount of damage that they've done to the lake, it doesn't seem fair to the lake or to the people who use the lake.
CHANATRY: But Ken Lynch of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation believes more people will start using the lake once it's clean enough for swimming.
KEN LYNCH: That means people can jump into the lake and enjoy the lake, and contact the lake without concern of any contaminants impacting human health.
CHANATRY: Back at that lakeside fishing derby, longtime resident Al Dahler says people need to know the lake is changing.
AL DAHLER: I mean, the jokes were that if you caught a fish out of here you would glow. Onondaga Lake is an environmental comeback in progress. Gradually we're learning to reconnect to this beautiful jewel.
CHANATRY: Lost to the community for 100 years, not too many summers from now people could again be swimming in Onondaga Lake. For NPR News, I'm David Chanatry.