The environmental history of “the most polluted lake in America.”
Native Americans have long regarded Onondaga Lake as one of the most sacred spaces in the continent, the place where peace between nations was achieved and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy was created. In the mid-twentieth century, however, it acquired a wholly different reputation as “the most polluted lake in America.” Toxic Lake is an environmental history of this complex ecological system, tracking how it was tarnished, the costly efforts to clean it up, and the controversies those efforts generated.
Thomas Shevory argues that the history of Onondaga Lake mirrors the larger environmental history of the US, from colonization to the industrial era, resulting, eventually, in the rise of social movements and legislative action for environmental protection. Layered within this history is the dismissal of indigenous land claims and the marginalization of indigenous voices in clean-up efforts. Toxic Lake illustrates that the failure to prevent the environmental destruction of Onondaga Lake was part of a political climate which favored unregulated industrial production and urban growth, ignoring the destructive impacts on local environments. Shevory argues this larger failure was the result of an active process of privileging the economic interests of polluters over other business interests, expanding neighborhoods, and indigenous rights. He concludes with an investigation of New York’s recent declaration that the clean-up is complete, questioning what exactly that means and whether the lake’s status as a sacred space will ever be re-established. Toxic Lake is a compelling work of history, demonstrating the disastrous effects of pollution and the importance of community involvement in environmental activism.
Thomas Shevory is Emeritus Professor of Politics at Ithaca College. He is the author of many books, including Toxic Burn: The Grassroots Struggle against the WTI Incinerator,Notorious H.I.V.: The Media Spectacle of Nushawn Williams, and The Great Lakes at Ten Miles an Hour: One Cyclists Journey along the Shores of the Inland Seas.
We need more studies like Toxic Lake—up close, detailed accounts of such degraded sites and possible solutions. ‘The devil is in the details,’ they say, and it is important to exorcize the devils. It is particularly valuable to see a book that gives attention to possible ways to move toward restoration, that understands that politics matter, and that acknowledges the ‘indigenous wisdom’ of the Onondaga people seeking a seat at the table.
~Martin V. Melosi, author of Fresh Kills: A History of Consuming and Discarding in New York City
Thomas Shevory’s masterful environmental history of North America’s most notoriously polluted lake recounts everything from the Onondaga foundational mythology to the financially driven pitfalls which plagued the recently ‘completed,’ government-mandated clean-up efforts. With laser focus and lighter whimsy, Shevory’s research provides every detail from pollution particulates to personal politics. If only we took seriously the voices of the original Native stewards of this toxic lake, our government might have conducted a more comprehensive and healthier cleanup for all people and all else on this planet.
~Joseph Alexiou, author of Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal