ITHACA, N.Y. — The City of Ithaca has received a preliminary report from the Environmental Protection Agency indicating higher than normal levels of lead in soil at the base of the Ithaca Falls gorge, an area previously believed to be uncontaminated.
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Findings were made public in a statement released on Tuesday by the City, which said it “has identified areas of lead impacted soil at the base of the gorge wall area (south) near to Ithaca Falls.”
These findings, although not yet complete, are believed by the EPA to be sound and apply to an area extending about 25 feet out from the southern wall of the gorge.
The city expects to place signs along the affected area by Friday, while a notice has been posted at the entrance to the gorge in the meantime.
Prolonged exposure to lead can result in serious illness; however, the city has given no indication that there is cause for any members of the public who have visited the site to be concerned.
When asked if the public had potentially been exposed to contaminated soil, Nels Bohn, director of community development of the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency said, “I’m not aware of any areas that were city owned or that are open to the public that had lead contamination (since 2004).”
The area in which contamination was reported this week has been open to the public since 2004.
The Gun Hill region, as well as the upper and lower Ithaca Falls gorge has been the focus of a major cleanup effort dating back over a decade, and involving the EPA, the New York State Departments of Health and Economic Conservation a private contractor and the City.
(What follows is the Ithaca Voice’s multi-part look at clean-up efforts at the Ithaca Falls. Did we miss your question? If so, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
1 — Initial cleanup
Responsibility for cleaning the region, which includes the upper portion of the gorge along the northern side of Gun Hill and the lower Ithaca Falls area, was divided between the EPA, which was expected to clean the lower area, and a private developer of the land along the upper portion.
Bohn indicated that the work was divided this way primarily for financial reasons and to facilitate redevelopment of the former factory complex.
“The City worked with the developer (…) to facilitate a redevelopment plan of the vacant factory complex that would generate sufficient revenue to cover the cost of the environmental cleanup of the entire site to a residential standard,” he said.
The newly discovered contamination was found in an area that was left by the EPA in 2004, following an extensive effort to remediate the region.
Bohn said, “Once EPA leaves a site where they remove soil, the expectation is they leave it clean (…) They completed their work and left the site.”
A statement released by the EPA in 2004 detailed a $4.8 million cleanup project of the gorge. The statement said, “Lead-tainted soil at the former Ithaca Gun Company is now cleaned up to acceptable levels, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).”
“(In 2004), the levels average(d) 110 ppm, far below the national cleanup standard of 400 ppm,” the statement said.
However, according to Bohn, because the developer was not able to achieve a financially feasible project, it failed in meeting its obligation to clean the site.
He explained, “I think it became quite clear between 2005 and 2006 that the developer was not going to be able to get the project off the ground — so by around 2007 the discussion shifted to alternative approaches to deal with the issue.”
As a result, the city says, the soil in the upper portion of the gorge was not fully remediated by the private developer as per the original arrangement.
2 – The city’s cleanup effort
In 2007, the city began to plan and seek funding for the remediation process. But cleanup of the upper area of the falls did not begin until 2013.
Bohn explained the process the city undertook, saying, “To access resources, the City worked in partnership with Frost Travis, as an innocent developer to acquire the property, and applied for ERP, Restore NY and EPA Brownfield Cleanup funding that are supporting the current investigation and cleanup activities.”
However, he did add, “it takes a long time to put together these projects because they are complicated, so 2013 was the year that remediation was started but that doesn’t mean that was when the project was started,”
Cleanup of the upper level, which is inaccessible to the public, was completed in 2015, and has been the focus of the city’s efforts since 2013, with attention turning the lower gorge area in December of 2014. Bohn said this procedure is standard.
“We were following the protocol that the DEC approved for the ERP site investigation (…) Usually you start at the source and move out until you find clean boundaries (because) if we attacked areas of lower elevation before higher elevation we might have contaminated areas that we had cleaned up.”
It was not until December of 2014, Bohn said, that the focus was turned towards the lower portion of the gorge.
3 – Potential recontamination
Bohn indicated the possibility that following the conclusion of the EPA’s work in 2004, the contaminated soil from the upper region had eroded, causing the lower area to be re-exposed
“We had known the fact that the top of the gorge was lead impacted. It turned out when we got into that area that there was lead impacted soil near the edge. That only happened in December (…) so we went in essentially as soon in the spring as weather permitted,” he said.
Bohn explained that initial sampling data suggested that trees along the upper gorge rim had formed a “clean buffer of soils. However,” he added, “(…) in early winter 2014, it became clear that lead-impacted soils extended much nearer to the gorge rim.”
However, the cause of the new contamination is far from certain, said Bohn. “We don’t know how exactly that occurred, but it may have been gravity and erosion from the former Ithaca Gun factory complex site,” he said.
He did stress that, “It wasn’t like there was material sitting there for 12 year in public sight and access that we were aware was potentially hazardous material.”
4 – Criticism of the city and the mayor
Walter Hang, founder of the environmental firm Toxics Targeting, has leveled direct criticism at the city and Mayor Svante Myrick for the handling of the issue.
In a letter penned to Myrick and cc’d to a number of New York State law-makers, including Governor Andrew Cuomo and Congressman Tom Reed, Hang assailed the Myrick’s administration’s response to the contamination.
Hang wrote, “Citizens should find the City of Ithaca’s on-going delay in this clean up matter shocking as well as unacceptable. Clearly an investigation is warranted and your administration must explain its inability to clean up the Ithaca Falls/Ithaca Gun site during the four years of your tenure as mayor.”
Hang also referenced a letter he had sent the city in December of 2014, discussing a potential contamination.
“As you will recall, you were cc’d on detailed comments that I submitted last December regarding your administration’s woefully inadequate toxic clean up efforts using heavy equipment that evidently recontaminated one of the most sophisticated and comprehensive lead pollution ‘source-removal’ remediation efforts ever undertaken by the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency anywhere in the nation,” he said.
Bohn responded to the criticism, saying, “I think with these environmental issues, people often want to find somebody to assign blame to. I think the city is working in good faith through the DEC process to follow their recommended and approved strategy for how to investigate and clean and environmentally contaminated site in a thorough way.”
He added, “Nobody was trying to hide anything in 2007 (but) nobody was coming forward with funding to address privately owned portions of the Ithaca Gun site(…) it’s one thing to ask the city to solve environmental contamination on a privately owned site, but if you don’t have the resources your options are limited.”
Bohn said the city plans to meet with the EPA and the DEC in order to follow up on the information and determine a way to proceed.