ITHACA, N.Y. — At the base of the gorge walls at Ithaca Falls, which were mostly clear of debris after the site was cleaned in 2015, are several feet of dirt, leaves, rocks, and brass butt ends of shotgun shells. All of this debris, which spills onto the nearby trail leading to the city’s namesake waterfall, is contaminated with toxic levels of lead again — an issue that has been plaguing the city for years.

Toxic lead levels in soil at Ithaca Falls were at 69,800 parts per million during a February test, which is up to 150 times more than the requisite cleanup level of 400 parts per million in some areas, according to Walter Hang, a local environmental activist and president of Toxics Targeting.

“These people are going in and out they have no idea that these stunningly high levels of lead have been detected, and I say enough is enough,” Hang said. “We’re just simply telling the public don’t walk in this area, don’t bring your pets in to this area, because the dust can stick to your feet, your hands, your clothing. Little kids in particular have to be safeguarded from this lead hazard.”

The lead, he said, is static enough to stick to people’s hair, clothing, shoes, and pets. This causes further contamination of cars and homes, spreading lead to other places.

Activist Walter Hang stands at the base of the gorge walls near Ithaca Falls Tuesday afternoon after a news conference about toxic lead levels found in the soil. A mother and two children play nearby. (Photo by Jolene Almendarez/ The Ithaca Voice)

It’s been nearly 18 years since Hang brought the lead levels at the falls to the attention of the public, and since then, the site has been repeatedly cleaned and re-contaminated.

June 2015 related story: Ithaca Falls base tests positive for lead contamination; City reacts to criticism

Hang said the contamination keeps occurring because of the government’s failure to clean the entire site, including the area by the former Ithaca Gun Company and Falls Overlook. Chutes along the side of the gorge face, he said, basically create funnels for runoff debris to be deposited at the base of the gorge walls by the falls.

The Ithaca Voice has previously reported: 

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. In the latest round, 2,652 tons of contaminated soil and 327 tons of concrete were excavated and disposed, while another 600 square foot area of contaminated thin soil layer was removed from a steeply sloped area in April 2017.

In a statement from the city, officials said the testing was done as part of a follow up by New York State Department of Environmental Conservation contractors after the site was found contaminated in 2015.

More testing will determine further action by the city, the statement says, and “plans for the installation of a fence and gravel to cover trails are being accelerated to prevent continued migration from the gorge face and reduce potential for public exposure at the popular trail.”

Hang said the clean up should be on the National Priority List for Superfund Cleanup, which is a list that helps guide the Environmental Protection Agency’s focus on sites throughout the country that have hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants.

“I am imploring them to vacuum up all of this pollution once and for all. It’s not going to be a day or two, it’s not going to be a month or two. This is going to be a large scale remedial effort but it’s essential to protect public health,” he said. 

The butt end of a shotgun shell was one among many found at the base of the gorge wall by Ithaca Falls, just inches from the walking trail. (Photo by Jolene Almendarez/ The Ithaca Voice)