January 26, 2011

Affirming Ithaca Relations

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On Friday, Dec. 10, the animal carcass digester at the College of Veterinary Medicine discharged wastewater into the building’s stormwater drainage pipes that feed into Fall Creek and Beebe Lake — two water sources for Ithaca residents. The incident marked the second time in less than a year that the facility accidentally released the digester’s contents into the two lakes. The spill understandably sparked anger among local community members, who questioned the University’s concern for the town’s well-being.

The administration has since taken the right steps to rectify the facility’s operations, reprogramming the digester to prevent a similar discharge, altering certain physical aspects of the machine that will reroute any water overflow to a storage tank and, most importantly, ensuring that it can no longer be operated without staff supervision. We commend the University for taking the necessary actions to greatly decrease the likelihood of future incidents occurring.

It is unacceptable, however, that a second discharge was necessary for the administration to take serious action. The College of Veterinary Medicine failed to use the discharge last February as an opportunity to closely examine their practices and find weaknesses in their operation. Administrators should have been alerted to the possibility of discharges and acted accordingly. After the first incident, the University could have insisted that a staff member oversee the digester, especially since the digester had only recently begun operating.

The administration has also not done their part to effectively communicate with local residents, which has led to uncertainty, speculation and, ultimately, anger directed toward the University. After the digester discharge, administrators opted to hold only a single publicized meeting on Cornell’s campus on Jan. 4, which was advertised at the very bottom of a University press release on Dec. 22. Less than 20 people attended.

The University should have reached out to the community via discussion forums and public announcements in a manner that reassured citizens that they deeply cared about the issue and were taking serious steps to remedy it. Communicating safety is equally as important as implementing safety.

The University’s relationship with the local community is as important as ever. Over the next few months, Day Hall will likely present their finalized design plans for permanent bridge barriers on and around campus to the city’s Common Council for approval; developers are increasingly approaching Ithaca’s Planning and Development Board to build complexes that benefit Collegetown; and even the digester’s operators are currently seeking a permit to use Ithaca’s Waste Water Treatment Plant. A sour relationship with the community will only make these initiatives more difficult and ultimately harm the University.

We call on the University to better empathize with the Ithaca community it is apart of through increased dialogue and discussion. By reinforcing its commitment to the health and happiness of local citizens, Cornell can help ensure that it will continue to be trusted with the town’s space and resources.