ITHACA, N.Y.—A limestone wall meant to contain lead pollution at the Ithaca Falls Natural Area was damaged from powerful flood waters on Oct. 26, leading the EPA to reinvolve itself with a site it believed it had played its final role in the remediation of.

The containment wall was finished in August 2021 and was meant to prevent lead pollution at the Former Ithaca Gun Factory from migrating into the public park. 

Michael Basile, an EPA Community Involvement Coordinator, previously said that the federal agency felt that the limestone wall would put an end to “band-aid” approaches to addressing the lead contamination.

But less than two months later it seems the wall’s functionality is partially compromised.

In an email to The Ithaca Voice, Basile wrote that the EPA estimates, “that up to 20% of the barrier could be dislodged and weakened in some fashion” as a result of the flooding.

The EPA became involved with the cleanup of the area in 2015, but only with the responsibility of cleaning up the gorge floor. With the wall’s subsequent completion in 2021, any further remediation regarding Ithaca Gun at the site was supposed to become the responsibility of the DEC.

Basile wrote that the EPA is cognizant of the impacts weather events can have on cleanup projects at contaminated sites, and the potential for it to . He wrote that the agency has been assessing the damage to the containment wall from October’s flooding. 

Basile wrote that the EPA is in close communication with the DEC as they do “an extensive sampling at the base of the falls” for contaminants and that the, “EPA will ensure that any  movement of contamination or structural issues caused by the flooding is addressed before handing responsibility over to NYSDEC.”

Located on the ridge above the Ithaca Falls Natural Area, the former Ithaca Gun Factory is classified as an Active Brownfield site by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). The site contains many contaminants of concern, but most infamously lead.

Despite remediation efforts that began in 2002, lead and other contaminants remain in the soil above the Ithaca Falls Natural area, and are swept down by wind and rain events into the gorge where the park is largely located, a popular area for fishing and family outings.

Sources familiar with the matter said that the DEC has been in contact with the EPA since Nov. 1, when a site inspection was conducted by the DEC after Oct. 26’s flooding. The source shared that on Nov. 16, the DEC met with EPA officials and a construction contractor to assess the flood damage at the site and the changed conditions within the gorge. 

In an email to The Ithaca Voice the DEC wrote that it is “committed to ensuring the protection of public health and the environment from the contamination related to the former Ithaca Gun factory and is overseeing the cleanup of both the main site and adjacent areas, including the mitigation work conducted by EPA at the Fall Creek Gorge.”

The lead contamination was discovered in the mid 1990s by the DEC, but it wasn’t until 2000 when environmental watchdog Walter Hang discovered the soil contaminations that remediation efforts were prompted. 

Since then thousands of tons of soil have been removed from the former Ithaca Gun site, and along with smaller excavations of soil from the gorge floor and areas surrounding the former Ithaca Gun Factory. Lead and other contaminants continue to be detected in levels dangerous to human health on the ridge where Ithaca Gun was located. Plans for the development of the site from Travis Hyde Properties—first proposed in 2018—resulted in the production of a remedial work plan in April 2021. Soil sampling showed that the severity of the lead pollution is scattered, but on the surface level is consistently far above the 400 ppm levels that are safe for human health.

Credit: Provided / Ramboll

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at jjordan@ithacavoice.com Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn