Photo of a family enjoying the Ithaca Falls in June 2015. Federal records suggest that the site has dangerous levels of arsenic, but Mayor Myrick and EPA officials say there's no public health risk. (Photo courtesy of Toxics Targeting)

ITHACA, N.Y. — Mayor Svante Myrick says that there is no reason to shut down public access to the Ithaca Falls over worries of contaminated soil at the pristine site.

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Myrick said he is trusting the assessment of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which recently announced a $400,000 clean-up of soil at the site but has not called for public access to be closed.

“I want to keep the falls open for Ithaca,” Myrick said. “(The EPA) told us explicitly that having people come and enjoy the waterfalls is not a threat to anybody’s health.”

Still, federal documents released on Monday by Walter Hang, a local environmental advocate, found that portions of the site tested positive for dangerously high levels of arsenic and lead that “may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to the public health and welfare.”

As a result of the findings, the EPA officials will spend the next 4-6 weeks removing soil at the site.

The EPA records released by Hang detailed multiple “threats” to the public welfare, including:

1 — That humans and animals face an “actual or potential exposure” from the pollutants at the site.

“Students and teachers were observed studying the geology of the gorge, looking for fossils, digging for rocks and playing in the water … Residents and the general public were observed relaxing along the trails, swimming in the area, fishing the creek and enjoying the natural beauty of that area,” the EPA found. “Exposure can occur through ingestion or inhalation of contaminated soil that can become airborne.”

A portion of EPA’s findings on the site
A portion of EPA’s findings on the site

2 — That some of the highly polluted soil could be carried elsewhere.

“Visitors walking through the area of contamination can transport lead and arsenic contaminated soil on their shoes and clothing,” the report said.

3 — That rain and erosion could also lead the contaminated soil to be carried somewhere else. “Contaminated soil can migrate to adjacent areas of the park,” the EPA found.

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Hang, who runs the environmental watchdog firm Toxics Targeting, held a press conference on Monday at which he criticized the city and federal government for what he called their inadequate response to the pollution. Contamination at the Ithaca Falls has been traced to the Ithaca Gun Company, which manufactured firearms and munitions from 1880 until 1986.

See related: Ithaca Falls base tests positive for lead contamination; City reacts to criticism

“Mayor Myrick never should have allowed the public to enter the known contaminated area of Ithaca Falls,” Hang said in an email. “People routinely climb and walk all over the area, lay on the ground and potentially expose themselves to lead. EPA makes that perfectly clear.”

About $5 million in federal money was spent in the early 2000s fixing the site — a clean-up Hang said proved inadequate, given the high lead levels — a maximum of 30,600 — revealed by the EPA testing.

Photo of a family enjoying the Ithaca Falls in June 2015. Federal records suggest that the site has dangerous levels of arsenic, but Mayor Myrick and EPA officials say there’s no public health risk. (Photo courtesy of Toxics Targeting)
Photo of a family enjoying the Ithaca Falls in June 2015. Federal records suggest that the site has dangerous levels of arsenic, but Mayor Myrick and EPA officials say there’s no public health risk. (Photo courtesy of Toxics Targeting)

“I and many others were … dismayed to discover that EPA failed to remove all of the lead pollution from the site,” Hang said.

“It has been more than 15 years since I first reported extraordinarily high lead levels at that site. Yet those problems still persist. …. (An) extraordinarily high level of lead contamination represents a grave threat to the thousands of people who visited Ithaca Falls Gorge in recent months, particularly young children.”

EPA officials have publicly disagreed. EPA spokesperson Michael Basile said in an interview that members of the public should “definitely not” be concerned about their health or that of their children if they went swimming in the area before it was suddenly closed by the city this summer.

“We spent two solid years there removing 6,000 tons of lead-contaminated soil and we spent almost $5 million,” Basile said in an interview. “There was never anything anyone should have been nervous about in terms of swimming or walking in that area.”

Hang has demanded that the EPA include the site in the National Priority List for Superfund clean up, which would ensure a more significant federal remediation process. He also said that the current warning signs are “useless” and that the city should, among other things, pay for children to be tested for lead poisoning.

But Myrick said he was trusting the statements and recommendations made by the federal environmental agency that does not “believe that anyone at Ithaca Falls should be concerned about … that this is contamination that has not so far threatened their health and safety.”

“We should listen to the EPA and should trust their assessment of the contamination there,” Myrick said. “They’re the ones doing the clean-up: If they say there’s no cause for concern, I think it would be irresponsible to fear-monger.”

Myrick also pointed to the words of Basile, of the EPA, as evidence that the public health risks were minimal.

“I trust what the EPA said more than Walter Hang’s assessment of what the EPA said,” Myrick said.

EPA officials did not immediately return a request for comment on Tuesday about the new documents released by Hang; we’ll update this story if they do so.

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.