October 16, 2006

Gun Company Site a Hazard

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Despite a recent cleanup effort by the Environmental Protection Agency, the old Ithaca Gun Company factory site, located right below West Campus, remains both structurally and chemically hazardous.

The Ithaca Gun Company was a major industrial venture in Tompkins County during the first and second World Wars. The factory, which was constructed in 1880 near the Ithaca Falls section of Fall Creek, closed its doors for good in 1986 when the Ithaca Gun Company moved to a new location in Kings Ferry, N.Y.

Since that time, the factory building has fallen into disrepair, and the property has tested positive for several contaminants including lead, asbestos, and arsenic. According to a recent report in the Ithaca Journal, the land is owned partially by the City of Ithaca and partially by a limited liability corporation headed by Wally Diehl, a veterinarian in North Carolina.

In 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency performed a $4.8 million cleanup using Superfund resources. According to the EPA website, the Superfund is “the Federal government’s program to clean up the nation’s uncontrolled hazardous waste sites.” However, two recent tests performed on soil from the property revealed lead concentrations which were “460 times higher than the 2004 cleanup goal set by the EPA,” according to the Ithaca Journal.

Ithaca Fire Marshall Tom Parsons said that the corporation purchased the property in 2005 with the intent of revitalizing the factory for business use. The corporation also constructed the Gun Hill apartments across the road from the factory site.

“It quickly became obvious that to make the building safe would not be cost effective,” said Parsons. He added that recontamination of the land was not surprising, given that the factory is built on a hill and that it is likely that during the past two years, contaminated materials from the factory were washed down the hill and onto city land.

The property owners have been working on a proposal to renovate the factory into a business that would generate the much-needed revenue to clean the site. Past proposals have been met with opposition due to zoning restrictions and building ordinances.

In late September, the Ithaca Common Council submitted a grant application to Restore New York, a program that would fund a broader cleanup effort and help to redevelop the property. Once a decision is reached, the City of Ithaca will be faced with a few options; to allow Diehl to continue overseeing the development, or to cede the land to the State or Federal government.

A response is expected between the middle of October and Election Day. Even if the grant application is accepted, it could take a few years to complete the cleanup process.

A fire in the factory last August caught the attention of a number of political figures, including Congressman Maurice Hinchey (22-D) and State Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton of the 125th district, who demanded that either the EPA or the state Department of Environmental Conservation take responsibility for the insufficient effort in 2004 and return to the site for a more effective cleanup.
The fire also prompted the Ithaca Fire Department to secure the area to keep out trespassers.

According to Parsons, the factory is “an attractive nuisance” because curious intruders are eager to explore the building. The fire was caused by vagrants who had taken up residence in the building and set a pile of mattresses on fire.

Following the fire, the Ithaca Police Department sealed the doors and windows of the factory and erected a fence to keep trespassers out. A private security agency was also hired to safeguard the property.

Trespassing in the building is particularly dangerous because of the high concentrations of contaminants including lead and asbestos which remain. Intruders carry these chemicals out of the building on their shoes and track them into their homes. The risk lies in the contaminated soil, and does not pose a danger to nearby residents who do not come into direct contact with the soil.

Parsons said that “the building is unsafe for both health and structural reasons,” and that anyone found illegally on the property will be “arrested and charged with trespassing.’

After the fire, Diehl returned to Ithaca with an engineering firm which specializes in hazard mitigation. It was at the suggestion of the engineering firm that Ithaca applied for the Restore New York Grant.
For as long as the future of the Ithaca Gun factory and its surroundings remains uncertain, this hazardous area is best avoided.