ITHACA, N.Y. — It’s not easy to boil down hundreds of stories into a top 10, but several issues really stuck out in 2016. First was water — both lead in schools’ drinking water and discolored water in the City of Ithaca. The city also unveiled a massive plan to address addiction.
This list (in no particular order) contains some of the biggest impact stories of 2016. To compile this list, we analyzed Facebook data on engagement (including likes, shares, comments and clicks) as well as most-read stories on the website. And ultimately, we used our judgment.
Miners trapped in Cargill Salt Mine
On Jan. 6, 2016, as 17 miners on the third shift were descending in an elevator, they were trapped about 900 feet down after a mechanical failure. Rescue efforts took nearly 10 hours, but everyone got out safely. The Lansing Fire Department was first on the scene, but around 15 agencies ultimately aided in the rescue. Though last winter might be remembered as warm overall, the temperature the night the miners were stuck was below freezing. As the 17 men, ranging in age from 20s to 60s, awaited their rescue they received gloves, hats, blankets and other items to keep them warm.
Operations at the mine resumed after about two months.
Cargill made headlines again later in the year when it requested a $640,000 tax abatement to offset the cost of a new $32 million mine shaft. In Cargill’s request to the Tompkins Industrial Development Agency, the company said if it did not get the new mine shaft, it would have to cease operations within a decade, eliminating about 200 local jobs.
A number of Tompkins County residents spoke out against the company’s request. Some were concerned about the environmental impact of the new shaft and others felt a multi-billion dollar corporation should not need a local tax break. Ultimately, the tax abatement was approved 6-1.
Drugs, addiction and The Ithaca Plan
This year, Ithaca unveiled a massive plan to tackle drug addiction in Ithaca. The city and Tompkins County has seen a rise in heroin addiction and overdoses in recent years.
While the plan drew massive attention for one aspect of the plan — a supervised injection facility — the 64-page plan contains a wide range of recommendations to comprehensively tackle addiction issues in the community. One part of the plan, expected to be implemented in early 2017, is to create a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, in which low-level offenders will be diverted to treatment programs or mental health services instead of incarcerated.
The plan was created with input from sectors across the community, and outside. There were focus groups with healthcare professionals, people addicted to drugs, law enforcement and prevention experts. The plan contains four pillars, with recommendations under each, including: prevention, treatment, law enforcement and harm reduction.
The Ithaca Voice has covered The Ithaca Plan extensively. Check the Voice’s Ithaca Plan Information Hub for detailed coverage on each pillar of the plan as well as a look at Vancouver’s supervised injection facility.
The Tompkins County Health Department said in July, there had been 11 confirmed overdose deaths, with four pending official cause of death. In all of 2015, there were 14 confirmed overdose deaths, and 15 in 2014. One of those overdoses was 25-year-old Antwan Brooks, whose family and friends came together for a vigil in May. Brooks’ family was open about his death, in hopes that their openness would bring awareness to the impact of overdoses, in the hopes of saving other lives.
While unveiling the Ithaca Plan in February, Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick said in terms of drug policy, it’s time to try something new.
“125 people will die in America today from opioid overdose. They will die in the streets, in their homes, in gas station bathrooms,” Myrick said. “So I ask the critics and cynics, what is your nightmare scenario? I’m living mine. We must do better. We must do something different.”
Tompkins County must address jail overcrowding
The county has its feet to the fire to either reduce the population of the Tompkins County Jail or expand.
In July, the New York State Commission of Correction revoked a variance that had allowed Tompkins County to operate the jail with 18 beds more than the 82 beds the facility was designed to accommodate. Though the county got an extension on its variance, losing it could cost taxpayers more than $800,000 per year in board-out costs.
Tompkins County must prove it is making serious efforts to reduce the jail population in order to sway the state to extend the variance again. In a Jail Study Committee meeting, Capt. Ray Bunce of the Tompkins County Jail, said it seemed likely the variance would be extended again.
Meanwhile, the county is investing in re-entry programs and alternatives to incarceration. Tompkins County Legislature appropriated $100,000 in 2016 to expand the county’s re-entry efforts and reduce recidivism. In August, legislators voted to spend $85,000 to study the jail population and assess impacts of the county’s alternatives to incarceration programs. A second study will analyze how to accommodate the projected jail population after the first study.
While requesting an extension on the variance from the state, county administrator Joe Mareane also outlined other ways the county is trying to reduce recidivism like funding housing for at-risk youth, moving forward with a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program and encouraging judges to release people on their own recognizance when possible, rather than put them in jail and set bail.
Housing and affordability
Housing is a persistent issue in Ithaca and Tompkins County that affects a wide range of people, whether it’s students, or elderly or low-income families.
To begin addressing the housing shortage, the county held the Tompkins County Housing Summit on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1.
The Ithaca Voice is exploring Ithaca’s housing crisis with a series of in-depth features called “No Place to Call Home: Ithaca’s Housing Crisis.” So far, the series has covered gentrification in Ithaca and residents displaced after Elmira Savings Bank purchased the North Meadow Street property.
Follow housing related to the affordable housing crisis in the story database here.
‘Road to Refuge’: Ithaca welcomes refugees
After a year of effort, Ithaca will welcome 50 refugees in early 2017. The refugees will come from eight countries, including Syria, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bhutan, Burma, Ukraine, Cuba, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Ithaca Voice took an in-depth look at refugees coming to Ithaca with the series “Road to Refuge” published as a series this summer.
The series chronicled the experiences of an Iraqi refugee in Ithaca, looked at how several local farms are helping refugees, spoke with the heads of a new Ithaca organization devoted to aiding refugees and examined the process that a refugee might undergo before coming to Ithaca.
The series was capped off with a panel exploring key questions about Ithaca accepting refugees.
No swimming! The ban and battle of swimming in the gorges
A popular story in early summer 2016 was the proposed ban on swimming in the area’s natural areas. While it is illegal to swim in areas like Six Mile Creek, it has been loosely enforced. For years, Second Dam has drawn swimmers, gorge jumpers and partiers.
⇒ Read more: Ithacans to protest gorge swimming crackdown Monday
The crackdown on swimming was not taken lightly. An online petition garnered 200 signatures, and there were several protests in Ithaca, with swimming advocates carrying signs such as “Swimming is not a crime.”
Funding was ultimately approved to expand the gorge ranger program to boost enforcement.
Lead in schools’ drinking water
Stories have been emerging all year across the nation about lead in drinking water, and Ithaca is no exception. Early in 2016, officials in the Ithaca City School District told parents there was lead in a number of water sources in Caroline and Enfield elementary schools.
After this discovery, every school in the county was tested. The highest concentrations remained in Caroline and Enfield. Taps and drinking fountains with high lead levels were shut off or replaced. The Ithaca City School District has contracted with LaBella Associates to address the issue.
Read the latest update on the issue here.
Discolored water and drought in Ithaca
As the lead stories quieted down when students went on summer break, water issues became a headline again as many Ithacans dealt with discolored water across the city. Ithaca residents reported discolored water, ranging from yellow to muddy brown, coming from their taps as the city dealt with a historically low rainfall.
The discolored water was attributed to manganese. In August, the city released the results of water tests which showed manganese levels were higher than the state-mandated level. While a study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information does show that excessive manganese exposure can pose health risks, this is observed in people who have been drinking water with higher concentrations of manganese than seen in Ithaca’s water, and over the course of years.
The dark, foul-smelling water was a pain for many Ithacans this summer, but there was some good news for people affected. Anyone who incurred a higher water bill than normal over the summer due to discolored water, is eligible for some reimbursement.
Cayuga Medical Center violates federal labor law
After a trial in May, a federal judge with the National Labor Relations Board agreed with nurses at Cayuga Medical Center who said the hospital broke labor laws while workers tried to form a union. Some of the complaints included the hospital trying to dissuade nurses from joining the union and unlawfully disciplining nurses who supported the union.
In his decision, judge David Goldman wrote “…it is clear to me that the hospital, while permitting a significant amount of union activity—which the law requires it to do—took issue with the activism of certain of its nurses.”
The trial took place in May, and the decision was rendered in November. After the decision, Cayuga Medical Center said it intended to appeal the decision.
Tompkins County elects a new district attorney
Tompkins County has a new district attorney, a year earlier than planned. Running on the Democratic line, Matthew Van Houten was elected in November over Ed Kopko.
Former district attorney Gwen Wilkinson stepped down in July due to health concerns.
Van Houten was officially sworn in Jan. 3. He grew up in the Ithaca area and has worked as a lawyer in Tompkins County for more than two decades. He has handled civil and criminal cases ranging from family court matters to homicide.
Disclosure: Matt Van Houten was previously an Ithaca Voice board member.