By Matthew Liptak
SYRACUSE, N.Y. (Reuters) - A group of swimmers took a plunge in a New York lake long considered one of the most polluted U.S. waterways to prove it is now safe for recreation.
About 40 swimmers participated in the symbolic swim on Wednesday in Onondaga Lake, northwest of Syracuse, the first time since 1940 that people have been allowed in the water.
The swimmers, mostly state and local community leaders, jumped off a dock at the north shore during an evening event celebrating the cleanup of the 4.6 square mile (7.4 sq km) lake.
"The restoration has just been incredible," said swimmer Neil Murphy, former president of the New York State College of Environmental Science and Forestry and an expert on Onondaga Lake.
Dubbed the most polluted lake in America by late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the body of water has undergone a nearly $1 billion decontamination effort to reverse 125 years of pollution.
From the 1800s through the 1980s, industrial pollution left behind heavy metals, mercury, PCBs and pesticides. Municipal waste also flowed in from Syracuse.
Honeywell International Inc, the corporate successor of Allied Chemical, which did much of the polluting, began dredging and capping a small percentage of the lake bottom in 2012.
It also worked to restore much of the shoreline and associated wetlands.
Evan van Hook, a Honeywell International vice president, was at the swim, sponsored by the community group Believe in Syracuse.
He said his company was spending $451 million on lake restoration. Onondaga County has invested $500 million in the project, van Hook said.
The top two-thirds of the lake are now considered suitable for swimming, according to the county's Department of Water Environmental Protection.
Residents said they were thrilled to be able to enjoy the water.
"I was beyond ecstatic," said Kathy Speed, 66, of Liverpool, who took a dip. As a child she was told her skin would fall off if she went in the water, she said.
Onondaga Lake is the birthplace of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, an organization of Native American tribes that says more of the lake should have been dredged for a thorough cleanup, at an estimated cost of about $2 billion.
"Clean up the lake!" shouted 20 protesters from the Onondaga Nation standing on the shore.
(Editing by Victoria Cavaliere and Barbara Goldberg)