August 25, 2000

Judgment Day

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A popular site where Ithaca residents and students swim, hike and fish will be tested today for lead contamination associated with lead shot dumped by the former Ithaca Gun factory.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is testing the lead levels along Fall Creek between Stewart Avenue and Lake Street, an area that includes Ithaca Falls. Ithaca bought this land last March from Cornell University for $1 as part of the agreement to permit construction for Lake Source Cooling in the city. The city plans to turn the falls into a park after cleaning up the contamination.

“We plan to see, with the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], if there should be a rapid removal action of the lead [in addition to] further clean up afterwards,” DEC’s environmental engineer Tom Suozzo said.

The most recent DEC tests, conducted in 1998, found lead levels as high as 215,000 parts per million, far exceeding the state’s recommended level of 400 parts per million.

It comes as no surprise that the site contains contaminants. The DEC first documented high levels of lead contamination in 1995, identifying the former Ithaca Gun Company’s factory as the source.

The city knew about the lead before acquiring the property, and according to city director of planning and development Matthys Van Cort, cleaning up the area was one of the motivations for buying the land.

“The Ithaca Gun Company was located there for almost 100 years, during which it polluted without a second thought,” Van Cort said.

According to Toxics Targeting Inc. president Walter Hang, his company could identify the site as a lead dump using simply visual evidence and practical experience.

“Ithaca Gun Co. hurled around 10 tons of lead shot on to the adjoining property,” Hang said. “I have never seen that much lead shot in my entire life … and you can see where people have been laying and sitting in the lead,” Hang said.

It is important to note that the water of the falls is not contaminated. According to Van Cort, the city did an extensive environmental impact statement there years ago, when looking into building a hydroelectric plant. Testing showed that the water quality was fine.

“I would be stunned if there were any effects on people from the water,” Van Cort said. “The main danger is with ingestion [of dirt contaminated by lead shot]. So at picnics, hand to mouth content could be dangerous.”

Though Cornell, the DEC and the city all knew about the contamination for years, no signs were posted to warn the many people who recreate there.

“This was just a boggling breach of public trust,” Hang said.

Hang, whose company maps and analyzes polluted sites around the state, has written to the Environmental Protection Agency, the DEC and has held press conferences over the summer to demand clean up of the site. This Wednesday, he wrote a letter, requesting that the site be put on the National Priority List for Federal Superfund Cleanup.

“I don’t understand why they don’t warn the people,” Hang said. “It has been weeks since this issue received local press attention and there has been no signs put up.”

City officials have discussed erecting signs at the site, asking people to wash their hands and wipe their feet after visiting the area, Van Cort noted.

The city already has been approved for the state’s Brownfield program, which will reimburse up to 75 percent of the city’s clean-up cost. Though the city and the state government will likely pay for the high cost of the clean-up, Hang says that the responsible parties should pay.

Ithaca Gun Company generated the pollution, but according to Van Cort, the city can not bill them for the clean-up. The company was reorganized through bankruptcy and has new owners who were not involved with the dumping.

Officials from the current Ithaca Gun Company, relocated to King Ferry, N.Y., did not return phone calls.

At first, the DEC wanted Cornell to clean up the area. Cornell eventually convinced the DEC that the University was an innocent landowner impacted by the pollution and that they shouldn’t bear the cost of cleaning it up, said environmental engineer Robert R. Bland of the University Environmental Compliance Office.

“We didn’t post signs because we didn’t feel that the amount of access and the health risks were enough to make signs necessary,” Bland said. “If you went up there and ate the dirt, though, you’d have problems.”

The University notified at least three agencies of the contamination while they owned the property.

Meanwhile, people continue to enjoy the falls, uninformed of their proximity to the lead contamination.

The EPA will soon be visiting the site to see if it is eligible for Emergency Removal Action. They will also estimate the cost of cleaning up the area.

Archived article by Eve Steele