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DEC closes in on final proposal for Ithaca Falls cleanup


Walter Hang displays shotgun shell remains found at Ithaca Falls Overlook.
Alyvia Covert/Ithaca Voice

ITHACA, N.Y. – As The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC) seeks final public opinion on the Ithaca Falls cleanup initiative, one local advocate continues to push for further action.

Walter Hang, local environmental activist and president of Toxics Targeting, held a documentation release event at Ithaca Falls on Tuesday afternoon, hours before the DEC’s scheduled proposal for possible “no further action” at the site.

Despite remedial cleanup initiatives throughout the years, Hang said the pollution at the site, caused by the city's historic Ithaca Gun Company, has turned out to be a much bigger problem that he and other local activists ever anticipated.

As Hang stands on the lower level of the of the Ithaca Falls Overlook at 125 Lake St., he motions to the top of the gorge.

“Right above us, there is a thin piece of land called 'The Island'," Hang said. "This is where they dumped the lead that was generated by test firing all the guns. That contaminated the entire island and it then spread down into this area – that's why you can see these shotgun shells."

Ithaca Gun, founded in the 1880’s, was torn down after its closure in 1986, leaving behind remnants of toxic lead in its place. While the DEC reported that the site has been cleaned of its toxic remains to a satisfactory level, Hang argues otherwise. As he sifts through debris on the ground, he identifies the remains of several shotgun shells in the gravel.

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“These hazards exceed the acceptable standards and they have to be cleaned up - there should be no reason to allow this contamination to remain in place,” Hang argued. “It’s already leaked into the water, there's no question – it's just a matter of how much has leaked.”

Several cleanup initiatives by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) have taken place over the years after the area has tested positive for highly toxic lead levels. In 2002, efforts to remove 6,000 tons of pollution cost the city nearly 4.8 million and continued for two years. After high lead levels were re-discovered in 2014 and 2015, further excavation cost the city an additional $400,000. Hang attributes the remains of the pollution to inadequate funding and private interest.

“The main problem is that all the pollution was not removed in one fell swoop,” Hang said. “They did very good remediation in certain areas, but ignored others because of funding limitations, and because the state did not want to go after responsible parties, including Cornell University.”

The DEC believes that after extensive cleanup efforts, the site may not require continual cleanup efforts to the extent of past initiatives. In a public meeting on Tuesday night, DEC Property Manager Gary Priscott said that future action for the site will depend on public response.

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"One of the things you can take away from this is that remedial actions have already been done," Priscott said. "Surface soils on the site meet the objectives, but the site is going to be looked at in the future by site management. If anything we see is contradictory for what we want the outcomes to be, we will address that."

Priscott noted that the DEC would organize periodic reviews, a monitoring plan, an excavation management plan, regular inspection of clean soil cover and an operation and maintenance plan for the property.

However, Hang believes that the site could score a high enough number on the hazard ranking system to make it to the national priorities list (NPL) and qualify for a Superfund, which will fund federal authorities to come in a thoroughly clean the site.

"The site has to score a 28.5 to qualify for NPL status " Hang said. "That way we won't be hoping and praying that the city will come clean it up because they are totally inept, they don't know anything about this, and they've screwed it up twice now."

The public will have an opportunity to submit questions and concerns about the Ithaca Falls Overlook site to the DEC for consideration. The comment period will be open until July 17, and all comments will be reviewed by the DEC, which will determine the finalized remedy proposal. Priscott is available for contact at