This article is the first in a series examining the history of the Ithaca Gun Factory.
Until several weeks ago, on the splintering and graffitied plywood boarding up the door a sign read, “This property is the subject of a Board of Zoning Appeals Hearing on _______________ at _______________ in City Hall at 108 E. Green St. Appeal # _____________. For more information call the City Building Department at 274-6508.” Next to it was another that read, “THIS BUILDING IS UNSAFE and its USE and OCCUPENCY has been PROHIBITED by the BUILDING COMMISSIONER of the CITY OF ITHACA New York. It shall be UNLAWFUL for any person to REMOVE, DEFACE, or DESTROY this notice without permission from the Building Commissioner. Ithaca, NY Aug. 30,2006.”
These two signs on the face of the Ithaca Gun Factory display what many feel has become characteristic to the history of the building — pending action without resolution has condemned the 2.1 acre property at 121-125 Lake Street to an obscure and dangerous existence, with members of the community left to fill in the blanks and possibly suffer the effects.
Representatives of the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Environmental Protection Agency, Cornell University, the City of Ithaca and private developers and engineers have sought solutions for the Ithaca Gun Factory property for at least 10 years.
Over 125 years of history lie beyond the fence surrounding the factory with the accumulated objects in the dust. Much of this history was made by the Ithaca Gun Company, who manufactured guns and munitions at the site from 1880 to 1986 before declaring bankruptcy. The company was responsible for much of the early industry of Ithaca and Tompkins County, especially during the First and Second World Wars.
Cornell also has had a share in this history. Inside the fence, before entering the factory buildings, one might choose to walk through “Ezra’s Tunnel” — a waterway blasted through the gorge side at the direction of the founder of the University. The tunnel provided power for much of Ithaca’s early industry.
“Ezra Cornell blasted [the tunnel] to bring water down the tailrace for use of hydropower,” explained Robert Bland, a University environmental engineer and director of the University’s Environmental Compliance Office.
Also beyond the property towards the gorge is a cement landing directly over the rushing Ithaca Falls. The landing, and the land adjacent to the gorge including Ezra’s Tunnel, were formerly owned by Cornell.
“We used to own the land alongside the gorge, adjacent to Ithaca Gun Factory,” said Bland. “At one time we operated a hydropower electric generating plant on that land. We never owned the factory.”
The EPA, the DEC, the City of Ithaca, representatives of Cornell University and various owners of the property have indicated that the Ithaca Gun Company is responsible for the contamination of the site containing the factory buildings and the land from Lake Street to the gorge. Though it is not certain, it is likely that most of the hazardous actions committed by the company occurred at least 35 years ago. Evidence gathered over the past 10 years, though, has indicated the continued presence of a full range of hazardous substances from asbestos, lead and arsenic to mercury and even uranium.
The Ithaca Gun Factory stack can be seen above Ithaca Falls’ rushing waters. The DEC conducted a study of the factory site in 1995; despite its close proximity to the factory, the Fall Creek area was not tested until three years later, in 1998. In the area along Fall Creek between Stewart Avenue and Lake Street, including Ithaca Falls, the DEC found lead levels as high as 215,000 parts per million, more than 500 times the level recommended 400 parts per million.
This same land had been purchased by the City of Ithaca from Cornell four months before for the price of $1, as part of an agreement to allow for construction of the Lake Source Cooling Project in that area, according to a Sun article in August 2000. Additionally, Cornell collected and tested its own soil samples in the area surrounding the former factory in 1995, which gave evidence of a high lead concentration for the site, according to a Sun article in November 2003; immediately previous to the transaction between the City and Cornell, the DEC conducted a brief investigation into Cornell’s involvement with the contamination, but cleared the University of any fiscal responsibility.
According to Bland, Cornell was very public about its findings, and the City was aware of the contamination of the land prior to the transaction.
“A lot of the lead shot was disposed of on our land, so at some point in the ’90s the DEC asked us to sample it,” said Bland. “We took a number of samples and found the rough aerial extent of the lead concentrations. With full disclosure about the presence of lead, we sold the land to the City of Ithaca.”
Regarding the $1 price tag for the land, he added, “Well, it was contaminated.”
The levels of lead contamination were attributed directly to almost 100 years of manufacturing and testing conducted by the Ithaca Gun Factory. Nearly 10 tons of lead shot — the lead discharged by the testing of munitions — was the approximated level of contamination. It is still largely unknown to what degree erosion from the steep slope of the factory site, leading directly to the gorge, has contributed to the spread of contamination, or what the effects of this lead contamination have been and will be for the surrounding environment.
No signs warning community members of these dangers are currently posted in the Fall Creek area.
According to another Sun article in 1999, the factory site was referred to the EPA for an in-depth soil analysis, which revealed lead concentrations “as high as 21 percent” along with remnants of arsenic in various areas.
A year later in 2000, The Ithaca Journal reported the Department of Energy released a report citing the IGF as one of 500 nuclear testing sites across the country. The gun company had an early 1960s contract with the former Atomic Energy Commission regarding testing of uranium metal tubes.
In 2003 the Environmental Protection Agency stepped in, years after finding evidence of high levels of contamination from a study it conducted in 1999. Its 2003 assessment estimated the need for the removal of 2,370 tons of contaminated soil at a cost of approximately $4 million dollars, with contributions from the City of Ithaca, State Street Associates, L.P. II and Fall Creek Redevelopment. The City of Ithaca, was required to contribute $150,000. State Street Associates, which owned the factory buildings, was to pay $165,000, while Fall Creek Redevelopment, with plans to purchase and redevelop the property, was to pay $50,000.
The EPA also determined that the Ithaca Gun Factory, which re-organized after bankruptcy and now has offices and manufacturing facility in Kings Ferry, N.Y. would not be financially responsible for the remediation of the site. Additionally, Cornell University was deemed exempt from financial responsibility, due to its purchase of the site from a third party.
Previous to the EPA’s cleanup, the property was slated to be restored with help from the EPA’s Brownfields Program. Its website defines Brownfields as “real property, the expansion, redevelopment or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance.” Again, the project ran into financial problems and cleanup was delayed further until April 2003, when the EPA’s remediation of the site began. The project met with difficulty due to the steep grade of much of the factory site and the area surrounding the gorge. The original deadline for completion was set until 2004, with work on the factory site not expected to begin until 2005.
The EPA’s cleanup was completed in 2004, at a total cost of $4.8 million, using Superfund resources.
“The Federal government’s program to clean up the nation’s uncontrolled hazardous waste sites,” according to the EPA.
Common Council minutes as recently as this past September warned against recontamination of the City owned land remediated by the EPA, and required use of temporary coverings such as tarps to minimize sediment transport from contaminated areas onto cleansed areas. In addition, the DEC’s assessment of environmental problems for the site states, “The primary contaminants of concern are lead and VOC’s. Site soils and groundwater are the primary media impacted.” Though indicating that the EPA had removed substantial amounts of lead-contaminated soil on and off site, the assessment continues, “Lead-contaminated soil remains in areas where it has potential to re-contaminate off-site areas, including waterbodies (the mill race and Fall Creek).”
Despite these warnings, recent testing of the soil from the property revealed lead concentrations, the main contaminant to be removed, at 460 times higher than the 2004 clean up goal originally set by the EPA, according to The Ithaca Journal.
The sign on the factory has recently been changed to announce a date for the Board of Zoning Appeals’ hearing for the site on Nov 3.
Currently, the City of Ithaca is working with a private owner in collaboration with a development and engineering firm to come to a cooperative solution using both private and public state funds for the site.
This article is the first in a series examining the history of the Ithaca Gun Factory.