This article is the second in a series examining the history of the Ithaca Gun Factory.
It is not difficult to imagine what lies inside the Ithaca Gun Factory for the homeless seeking shelter from the Ithaca cold, or for the curious student.
Walking the perimeter, the dilapidated fence, vulnerable at multiple sections, shows obvious signs of entry — peeled back chain link and fallen barbed wire. Even the building’s outer appearance is foreboding — rows of shattered windows, heavy, rusty machinery with graffiti scrawlings and overgrowth climbing over the walls.
The factory itself can be entered through several unlocked doors, though others are boarded, or even an area where the brick of a wall has crumbled to allow comfortable entry upon mounting the rubble. The ground floor allows minimal light to make out the strange objects left behind — beer cans, type writers, mattresses and even a car. Even the air changes; its musty smell and difficult density serve as immediate warnings. Walking up the stained staircases, the next two floors might appear more cheerful from the light pouring through the shattered windows. Colorful graffiti art with messages both explicit and thoughtful distract one from the eeriness of desks and chairs abandoned as if in mid-work, mostly intact bathrooms and warped floorboards through which one can occasionally glimpse the level below.
The sensory warnings are difficult to ignore upon venturing into the basement. Immense vats, rusty and eroding, still hold some unidentifiable, brightly colored chemical substances. Involuntary stifling of breath, light headedness and slight nausea increase with time — the body’s reaction to the rapid change in humidity, the distinctly metallic and chemical smell, the small crawl space, or maybe to the observation that no evidence of any other living thing — not weedy overgrowth, animal droppings or even cobwebs — exists here.
In the Building’s Department’s property file for the site, Ithaca Building Commissioner Phyllis Radke wrote in October of 2003, “In my opinion, the site as it currently sits represents a significant risk to the community and certainly to our fire fighters should they be called to battle a blaze there.”
She continued, “Should a fire occur at this building we would be hard-pressed to stop it.”
Of the available Common Council minutes from 2003 to 2007 on the City of Ithaca’s website, the strongest description of the site is, “a long-abandoned factory with severe environmental contamination in the building and on the premises stemming from its prior industrial use, and [constituting] a health and safety hazard and a blight on the neighborhood.” According to these same minutes for a meeting in September of 2006, Radke condemned the building as unsafe and ordered it to be demolished. According to Fire Marshall Tom Parsons of the Ithaca Fire Department, the DEC gave notice to the current owner of the property requiring the demolition of the building by this past March.
In August 2006, a group of homeless persons who had taken up residence inside the building started a fire by setting a pile of mattresses afire. Due to the fire, the Ithaca Fire Department was prompted to secure the area from trespassers, sealing the doors and the windows of the factory and erecting a fence.
According to Frost Travis of the local development firm Travis and Travis Development working with current owner of the site Wally Diehl, “The biggest hazard right now on the site is that it’s a fire hazard and an attractive nuisance. You have a teenager or any young person who wants to get into a little mischief you can have a really serious problem.”
“The lead doesn’t really migrate, the asbestos is contained in the building. The hazard is the attractive nuisance — there is quite a graffiti gallery,” he added.
The CUPD said the gun factory site is out of their jurisdiction. The IPD was unavailable for comment.
The health hazards listed by the DEC’s record of the Gun Factory site are lead, vinyl chloride, benzene and trichloroethene. All the types of waste on the record are listed with “unknown” quantities. For this reason, the health risks are to some degree indeterminable.
Associate Director of Environmental Health and Safety’s industrial hygiene group Jim Grieger, who is not involved with the gun factory site, said, “[The contamination] is far above an acceptable level that it required remediation. The data confirmed, and that’s what supported the whole project. It’s only logical that it’s got risk.”
“There are lots of dangers within the building. There is asbestos coming off the pipes. There is also lead and arsenic in some of the soils around the grounds,” he added.
According to Parsons, these risks lie in the contaminated soil, and do not pose a threat to nearby residents, such as persons inhabiting apartments at Gun Hill, across the street from the factory property, who do not come in direct contact with the soil.
Yet, the DEC’s Environmental Site Remediation Details for the property state, “Industrial process waste containing lead arsenic disposed on this site has contaminated surface soil. Due to the lack of a competent fence around the site and the documented evidence of trespassing, the potential exists for direct contact, incidental ingestion and inhalation of contaminated soil.”
Walter Hang, president of Toxics Targeting, is one of the people who first exposed the contamination of the site to the public.
With help from Assemblywoman Mary Luster, Hang claimed that press pressure on the EPA forced them within six weeks to agree to clean up the site. After initiating the work, the EPA doubled its scope, declared the site had been properly cleaned up, and constructed a fence.
“The EPA didn’t do what they promised; they didn’t clean up the main polluted area,” Hang said.
Hang’s firm collected soil samples immediately after the fire in 2006, which indicated that levels in the area went from 215,000 to 189,000 “in the worst case scenario area,” despite supposed remediation by the EPA.
The City of Ithaca’s Community Development Director Nels Bohn, Building Commissioner Phyllis Radke, City Attorney Dan Hoffman and Mayor Carolyn Peterson did not return calls and e-mails addressing this issue.
Travis claimed that a local company hired by the owner has “kept it locked up pretty well, and they’ve done an excellent job of securing the building.”
Hang expressed skepticism and disappointment at the handling of the property and its contamination thus far.
“It’s just incredible to me that people knew the lead was there,” Hang said. “Cornell knew it was there. The City of Ithaca knew it was there. The DEC knew it was there. And they never even posted a sign. They should have made the public aware.”
Since its ownership by the Ithaca Gun Company, the property has been parceled and passed down through numerous owners. In addition, several plans for its remediation and redevelopment have fallen through, mainly due financial infeasibility. Currently, the City of Ithaca is working with Diehl, practice owner and manager of Fall Creek Redevelopment, LLC. Diehl is collaborating with the local development firm Travis and Travis Development, LLC and O’Brien and Gere Engineers, Inc., and awaiting approval for a cooperative solution using both private and public funds from a N.Y. State grant and an EPA program.