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Onondaga Nation

Managing Waste and Maintaining Sovereignty: The Story of Onondaga Nation’s Transfer Station

Designing and Constructing the Transfer Station

Onondaga Nation, located in New York, funded and constructed a small transfer station without help from the Indian Health Service or any other federal agencies. The nation worked directly with private waste haulers to design and complete its transfer station. Before breaking ground, tribal leaders calculated waste generation rates and called several haulers to gather information about operation and maintenance costs. One waste hauler helped the nation develop an informal transfer station construction and operation plan.

Tribal leaders selected a site for the transfer station that would insulate tribal members from the noise, odors, and vermin associated with waste collection facilities. They chose to build the transfer station near an old open dump on an uninhabited road between three highways.

The Onondaga Nation transfer station consists of a concrete surface with two roll-off bins inside of a chainlink fence with a gate. One of the bins has a hydraulic compactor on it and is used to collect and compact household trash. A small shelter houses the generator that runs the compactor. The other bin is used to collect materials for recycling. It contains two compartments—one for bottles (glass and plastic) and one for paper and cardboard.

The transfer station includes a small building with windows and doors to shelter attendants during harsh weather. The transfer station also includes a bin for car batteries and an auxiliary cabinet for household hazardous waste (HHW). Onondaga Nation organizes HHW collection events twice a year, transporting HHW from the auxiliary cabinet to Onondaga County, which accepts it for free.

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Choosing a Waste Hauler

Before opening the transfer station, Onondaga Nation researched different waste hauling companies in search of the best bargain. The nation selected a hauler that agreed to a 6-month trial period. At the end of the trial period, the nation was satisfied with the arrangement and signed a long-term contract. When the bins are full, transfer station attendants notify the hauler, which removes them and delivers empty replacement bins. Currently, the waste bin must be replaced at least once a week. The recycling bin fills more slowly. Onondaga Nation’s Chief Irving Powless, Jr. explained, “Our transfer station will accommodate future population growth. As residents generate more trash, transfer station attendants can simply ask our hauler to replace the bins more often.” The nation uses the tribal general fund to cover all hauling fees and transfer station operation costs (including transfer station attendant salaries).

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Staffing the Station

Onondaga Nation runs a free curbside collection program for the elderly. Other residents must bring their trash to the transfer station, which is only open to Onondaga Nation members. Residents can drop off their trash and recyclables for free, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. A transfer station attendant is always on duty. Onondaga Nation was forced to staff the transfer station around the clock because of problems with residents from the surrounding counties. These individuals were dumping trash at the tribal transfer station to avoid paying tipping fees in their own towns. County recycling bans also contributed to the problem. Residents were dumping trash at the tribal transfer station to avoid the mandatory recycling programs in their own towns. Hiring attendants to staff the transfer station throughout the night solved this problem.

The transfer station attendants show residents where to put their trash and recyclables. By monitoring the bins, attendants keep contamination to a minimum. They remove tires, HHW, and other unacceptable materials from the waste stream.

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Community Outreach

Onondaga Nation launched an outreach campaign to educate community members about the new transfer station. Nation employees distributed waste disposal procedures and a recycling bin to each household and publicized the fact that open dumping is illegal. Jeanne Shenandoah, who represents Onondaga Nation on a regional environmental task force, felt that education was the biggest barrier to transfer station operations. In some cases, community members did not read the information about the transfer station and continued to practice open dumping. According to Ms. Shenandoah, “It is important to tell community members why you are changing the procedure. It is also important to explain why people should recycle.” Most community members adopted the new practices, but several households refused to recycle and dumped illegally. Onondaga Nation employees visited these households and asked them to participate. These one-on-one visits were successful.

Children also played an integral role in the nation's education campaign. When the transfer station opened, children were already recycling in Onondaga Nation schools. They helped educate adults about the benefits of recycling and promoted use of the recycling bin at the transfer station.

Chief Powless encouraged other tribes to gather outreach materials from surrounding counties and waste management companies. He said, “Many of the smaller waste management companies believe in recycling. They have already created brochures and other materials to promote recycling. Counties have also developed outreach materials on waste disposal and recycling. It’s easy to start an education program if you leverage these resources.” Onondaga Nation employees also distribute brochures on waste prevention and educate community members about “conscious consumerism.” Waste prevention reduces the nation’s disposal costs, preserves resources, and protects Mother Earth.

Ms. Shenandoah explained that tribes can use cultural beliefs to promote recycling and proper waste disposal. Onondaga Nation members believe in caring for Mother Earth and preventing waste. Most nations have the same mandate. In 1856, Chief Seattle pointed out that people would be affected by their actions if they continued to pollute and damage Mother Earth. Onondaga Nation incorporated this message into promotional materials for the transfer station. In addition, the transfer station signs include words from the native language and cultural symbols.

To learn more about Onondaga Nation’s transfer station, contact Chief Irving Powless, Jr. at 315 492-4210 or Jeanne Shenandoah at 315 492-1440.

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