In 2000, Cornell University sold a plot of land to the City of Ithaca for one dollar. This plot of land — the Ithaca Falls and Gorge Trail region — has now cost the City millions in cleanup as high levels of lead contamination have been found there again and again.
The purchased land, according to The Ithaca Times, has long been a site for lead dumping. The source of the lead pollution is the Ithaca Gun Company’s now-abandoned factory on East Hill, which manufactured weapons until 1986, according to its website.
The factory dumped lead waste from production, which accumulated at the top of the gorge face and continually deposits at the base where individuals walk, according to Walter Hang, a scientist and activist who has been advocating for this area’s cleanup.
The most recent sampling from February revealed toxin levels as high as 69,800 parts per million, according to data provided to The Sun by Hang. Acceptable levels in soil are around 400 parts per million, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The City made an effort to clean up the area in 2015. According to Hang, the area was recontaminated soon after.
In 2017, after the cleanup efforts, the Department of Environmental Conservation proposed a “No Further Action” remedy for the Ithaca Falls Overlook site. It based this proposal on interim remedial measures that had already been implemented, during which 2,652 tons of contaminated soil and 327 tons of concrete were removed.
According to a DEC email to The Sun, a contractor sampled the soil in the Ithaca Falls and Gorge Trail region in February as part of their “aggressive effort to protect public health.” A City statement from late March said that the sampling was part of continual monitoring after the 2015 contamination and cleanup.
Upon receiving the findings, which revealed elevated lead levels, the DEC contacted the Department of Health and the EPA.
Areas of contamination include areas where visitors and young children walk around, according to Hang, who said that contamination extended to the gorge trail that goes beside Ithaca Falls.
Dry lead can stick to people, clothes, hair, pets and items, according to Hang, and the lead contamination is visible to the naked eye.
The City said that it plans to post signs to warn visitors of the Falls to limit contact with the soil in the vicinity, according to the City’s statement. It also aims to accelerate the plans to install fence and gravel to cover trails.
According to Hang, previous clean-ups have been unsuccessful because they weren’t complete enough. To be successful this time, “they’ve got to just clean it all up,” Hang said.
Hang expressed doubt that the City itself would be sufficient in the effort, saying he thinks “the EPA is our only hope for cleaning this up.”