ITHACA, N.Y. — Ithaca’s industrial history left it some messes that have taken years to clean. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC) thinks its finally time to close the books on one of them.
The DEC has proposed a “no further action” remedy for the Ithaca Falls Overlook at 125 Lake Street. Having finished additional excavation of lead-contaminated material and re-grading parts of the site with clean soil, the DEC believes that at this time, the site has been cleaned to safe levels, and that institutional restrictions and management, erosion control to maintain the cover system, and site monitoring are all that remain on the to-do list.
The period of public comment is open from June 1st to July 17th, with a public meeting at Ithaca city hall at 6:30 PM next Tuesday the 20th. Already, the plan has drawn a detractor, local environmental activist Walter Hang. Hang is drafting a letter to say that the cleanup has been inadequate, and that Ithaca Falls should be placed on the national priorities list for Superfund sites, meaning the site has known releases of hazardous substances and poses a high risk to the local population.
As one of the storied institutions of Ithaca’s past, Ithaca Gun operated out of a factory on Lake Street from the 1880s to its closure in 1986. The company moved into a vacant wagon wheel factory on Lake Street shortly after its founding to take advantage of a flour mill tunnel built by Ezra Cornell in 1832, which provided a constant rush of flowing water to power equipment used in the manufacture of guns.
Ithaca Gun was known for high-quality rifles with intricate gunstock engravings, and was a multi-generation family operation until the late 1960s, but not long after, the corporate owner ran into financial difficulties, closed the factory in 1978, it was reopened by local investors, and shuttered again in 1986. Operations later moved to Cayuga County, and then Ohio under different ownership. The factory itself was demolished several years ago, leaving only the smokestack to be included as a sort of monument in a planned public overlook.
However, Ithaca Gun’s legacy hasn’t been limited to high-end armaments. Workers used to test the guns by firing them into the air over the gorge. Over time, lead shot accumulated to toxic levels, 500 times the “action level” where government steps in to demand or undertake cleanup.
The first cleanup attempt lasted from 2002-2004, removed 6,000 tons of material and cost about $4.8 million at the time. However, high lead levels were discovered after the initial remediation, leading to further excavation and removal operations in 2014 and 2015.
The land would be used as naturalized public space if deemed satisfactory remediated. A separate remediation plan is being pursued for the former factory site, which the city sold to local developer Frost Travis to eventually develop into new housing after remediation is complete.