Toxic Hell: Onondaga Fight Back

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What makes this lawsuit unique is that the Onondaga Nation has made it clear that they are not seeking monetary damages from New York State, which the Nation claims illegally obtained the land, nor do they seek the right to operate casinos there. Instead, they are hoping to press the state for cleaning up this environmental mess.

Last month the Onondaga Nation, a Native American people based in upstate New York filed a legal claim for 3,100 square miles of land in upstate New York. The land goes from the St. Lawrence Seaway to the New York-Pennsylvania border and includes the city of Syracuse.  They hope to use any ruling in their favor to force the cleanup of toxic waste sites there, particularly Onondaga Lake, which they consider sacred land.

The Onondaga people have lived near the lake for hundreds of years and have made the clean-up of the polluted land one of their priorities.  After decades of industries dumping toxic waste in this lake, it has been named a federal Superfund site and is considered one of the most contaminated bodies of water in the nation. “They are sick of being ignored on environmental issues,â€? explained Joseph Heath, an attorney who is representing the Onondaga Nation.  The elders have considered filing such a legal suit for more than 50 years, but as the pollution increased and the proposed clean-up has faltered, they felt they had no other choice but to try to take back their land and get it cleaned up themselves.

Indeed, what makes this lawsuit unique is that the Onondaga Nation has made it clear that they are not seeking monetary damages from New York State, which the Nation claims illegally obtained the land, nor do they seek the right to operate casinos there.  They have even declared that home owners have nothing to worry about, that they do not intend to press for eviction, although they are interested in buying land from those who wish to sell.  Instead, they are hoping to press the state for cleaning up this environmental mess.

In 1987, the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice released a study, Toxic Waste and Race, which pointed to the fact that communities of color were more likely to face toxic waste dumping.  In that study, the term environmental racism was coined, pointing to this dangerous reality in communities of color.  Clearly, the dumping of 165,000 pounds of mercury and other poisons into Onondaga Lake is a classic case of environmental justice.

The Onondaga Nation suit not only focuses on what it calls the inadequate efforts by New York State to clean up the lake and the land, but it also names five corporations.  These include Honeywell International, which was ordered by New York State last year to clean-up the lake because it merged five years ago with Allied Chemical, which owned the plant responsible for much of the pollution.  The lawsuit also named a gravel mine, a limestone quarry and a coal-burning power plant for their part in the pollution of both the lake and the land.

In the decades since the beginning of the environmental justice movement, there have been many differing efforts to force the clean-up of toxic wastes in community of color.  Some have included forcing both the federal and state governments to make this a priority and finding creative ways to get corporations responsible for the pollution to clean up. April 22 is Earth Day.  It seems the Onondaga Nation has found a new way to celebrate that day.  Maybe now the governments and the corporations will listen.  

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