Sewage on the Southside: Not in my backyard

Residents of one upstate New York neighborhood claim that a nearby sewage treatment plant is an environmental injustice.

By Sarah Parsons

In August 2004, eviction notices appeared on townhouses on two blocks of a Syracuse, New York neighborhood. Tenants hadn’t forgotten to pay their rent, or broken any housing rules. Rather, residents of the Public Housing Authority-owned homes were being kicked out to make way for a chlorine-based, above ground sewage treatment plant. In total, 45 families residing in housing authority buildings were displaced by the $148 million project.

Onondaga County is building the plant, the Midland Avenue Regional Treatment Facility, to reduce the amount of raw sewage released into Onondaga Creek, a main tributary of Onondaga Lake, one of the most polluted lakes in the country and a Superfund site. Like hundreds of US cities, Syracuse dumps a mixture of human waste and stormwater into local waterways whenever rain overwhelms the wastewater treatment system (also known as combined sewage overflows, or CSOs).

The county is placing sewage facilities throughout Syracuse to comply with a 1998 federal court order to prevent overflows from further polluting the lake. But whereas the more affluent Northside neighborhood will house small control centers, Southside—a low-income community where 83.7 percent of the population is African American—is being forced to take a large, obtrusive chemical treatment plant. When completed, the Midland Avenue facility will capture the overflows, treat them with chlorine, and release them into Onondaga Creek. The process, critics say, can adversely affect aquatic life and human health. Constructing the biggest the plant in Southside has many calling the decision an environmental injustice.

“It’s a minority, low-income community,” says Van Robinson, a Syracuse Common Council member who voted against selling the city land to the county in 2001. The city eventually acquired the land for the project through eminent domain granted by a federal judge in 2002. “It was easier to prevail in that area than it would have been to prevail in more affluent areas.”

Syracuse residents aren’t the only ones rallying against environmental injustice: From the streets of New York City to the banks of rivers in Oregon, groups of low socioeconomic status are speaking out against environmental burdens being targeted at their neighborhoods.

“Environmental racism is a pattern of siting unwanted land uses [anything from dumps to halfway houses to waste treatment facilities] in or around poor communities and communities of color,” says Kishi Animashaun Ducre, a Syracuse University professor who studies environmental justice in the US.

Instances like that in Syracuse are inspiring an environmental justice movement: Residents in communities across the nation are demanding equitable distribution of environmental burdens and benefits, like parks and community gardens.

Construction of the Midland Avenue facility is nearly complete. On March 4, Onondaga County legislators will hold a public hearing to discuss whether to build the third phase of the project, a 7700-foot pipeline running through the Southside to transport sewer overflows to the treatment plant.

Though activist groups like the Partnership for Onondaga Creek (POC), an organization formed to protect the creek and combat the project, have publicly protested the plant at each stage of its construction, and even filed a race discrimination complaint with the EPA under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, county officials insist the community isn’t being targeted.

“The reason the plant was put there was because that’s where all the CSOs were,” says Jim Corbett, chairman of Onondaga County Legislature’s Environmental Protection Committee. “It wasn’t because of environmental racism.”

POC and other opponents suggested an alternate, underground storage system that would hold overflows beneath the ground after a storm and pump them to the city’s main treatment plant, where waste is disinfected using ultraviolet light. But county engineering firms pushed for the above ground plant, which began construction in 2005.

“We said if you must hold the sewage in the neighborhoods, hold it underground so people aren’t stigmatized by this tank,” says Aggie Lane, a member of POC and a Midland-area resident. “And don’t chlorinate it. Just make it big enough so it doesn’t overflow.”

POC and other activist groups also found it unfair that the Northside received facilities that not only had smaller footprints, but also didn’t dump chlorinated water nearby. If the final phase of the Midland project receives approval, activists say the Southside will suffer even more disruption when thousands of feet of pipeline go in.

“It’s really too bad that the Southside seems to be forgotten,” says Lane. “We’re going to put in a pipeline rather than rethink what else we could do that’s fairer and less costly.”

Instead of the pipeline, POC suggests stormwater retention and a system that separates stormwater from sewage, making it less likely for sewers to overflow.

The POC says they will keep fighting, and bring their concerns to the March 4 public hearing about the pipeline. There, legislators will decide whether to allot an additional $25 million to the project, $3 million of which is earmarked for enhancing the Southside community. Members of POC are outraged that there are strings attached to the enhancement funds.

“We’re trying to get a separate resolution for the mitigation money so we don’t have some sort of crazy vote where people are voting for the pipeline when they would rather vote ‘no’ because they want the mitigation money,” says Lane. “So that’s a tall order for us. We need to get our act together and do it as well as we can.”