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Life on top of Ithaca's uncapped garbage dump


Casey Martin

Several years ago on Mother’s Day, Esther Herkowitz, tried to plant rose bushes in memory of her mother and grandmother. Instead of soil, she hit cement, metal bits and rebar.

“That was when I found out that I bought a mobile home on an unkempt toxic dump,” she said.

Herkowitz lives at Nate’s Floral Estates at 205 Cecil Malone Drive in Ithaca. Today, the mobile home park residents must plant their fruits and vegetables in raised beds, planters or pots. This requirement is stipulated in the operating permit issued by the Tompkins County Health Department.

Until 1970, the land under the trailer park was the city of Ithaca’s landfill, accepting wastes, for 30-32 years.

“This site is the only uncapped toxic landfill in New York State with hundreds of people living directly on top of the dump. It is a scandal that this dump has never been cleaned up,” said environmental activist Walter Hang. He is president of Toxics Targeting, a private firm using government data to track environmental concerns.

Before the mobile home park was built, the dump reportedly caught fire frequently.

Roger Yonkin, former assistant regional engineer for the New York State Highway Department in Tompkins County, recalled a time in 1972 when a woman mistakenly called the highway department to report a fire at the dump. Yonkin headed out to the fire but noticed something besides the flames.

“I observed a bunch of 55-gallon drums with 2,4,5-T that had not been covered yet,” he said,

No longer registered for use in the U.S., the toxic herbicide, 2,4,5-T was mixed with another herbicide, 2,4-D, to make Agent Orange used during the Vietnam War as a defoliant to clear away jungle vegetation. Agent Orange has been linked to a wide variety of health problems, including cancer and birth defects.

No records indicate that the wastes, including the 20 drums Yonkin encountered, were ever removed from the site, according to a 2017 hydrogeologic investigation prepared for the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).

“Over time, thousands of waste drums were uncovered at this site and hauled away, but the wastes that leaked out were never cleaned up,” said Hang in an email.

Instead of removing materials from the landfill, the site was covered in a layer of soil cover from 1.5 to 4 feet thick.

Today, a drum, iron parts, metal scraps, orange-colored dirt and a rusted car stick out from the soil, immediately west of Wegmans and the surface water flood control relief channel and just outside the fence surrounding the mobile home park’s perimeter. On rainy days, the river bank can be seen leaching out a visibly rust-colored substance into the stream, the result of rain water seeping into the uncapped trash beneath the park.

DEC is reportedly not concerned that the site is leaking.

“We have every reason to believe everything is contained on site,” said Reggie Parker, DEC regional engineer.

Streambed near Nate's Floral Estates, Credit: Casey Martin

But “out of an abundance of caution” the DEC is planning to conduct investigations to assess whether the site may be contaminating a drinking water source, as required in the Clean Water Infrastructure Act of 2017. In a statement, the DEC said the investigation “is designed to ensure Landfills, like the former Ithaca Landfill, are not causing a threat to public health or the environment.”

Drinking water for Nate’s Floral Estates comes from the City of Ithaca’s water supply. Hang contends that the PVC plastic pipe system in the mobile home park is not strong enough to withstand the pressure of the city’s supply system and breaks regularly. The City of Ithaca, with no jurisdiction over private property, has no record of the water systems at Nate’s Floral Estates, and all city maps show the city water system’s limits ending at the entrance of the park.

“When the pipes are under groundwater, hydraulic pressure can cause groundwater to intrude into the piping system if cracks develop,” Hang said.

The operating permit issued to Elline Weiner, park operator, for the period January–October 2018, requires notification of the Tompkins County Health Department within 24 hours of a water main break, sewage system repair or replacement. In addition, Weiner is required to file monthly reports providing information on water system interruptions or repairs, and collect and test bacteriological samples quarterly.

There were no interruptions or repairs reported in January. The report for February is not due until March 10.

“We did not find any records that they had water main breaks last year,” said Liz Cameron, director of environmental health for Tompkins County.

The DEC said, “Prior investigations by DEC has shown that groundwater is not sufficiently impacted to require remediation. This new analysis will expand on the previous investigations, identify any additional contaminants that may be present in the groundwater and determine if any additional actions are necessary to protect public health and the environment.”

Weiner, the mobile home operator, did not respond to telephone messages requesting comment on DEC’s investigation.

A fact sheet distributed to the 115 residences in the park explains that over a week-long-period this month, DEC’s contractor, the Syracuse-based firm Parsons, will install four permanent groundwater-monitoring wells from 15-20 feet deep. Two wells will be located at the north end of the site, one in the middle, and a fourth at the southern end.

Groundwater samples will be collected from the new wells and analyzed. Surface water samples will be taken from the northern and southern ends of the flood relief channel and also analyzed.

Within a month, the DEC expects to have the water quality analysis completed. Plans also call for a surface soil-sampling program as the next phase of the investigation, weather permitting

“The testing is long overdue,” said Alderperson Cynthia Brock who represents the area in the First Ward on the Ithaca Common Council. But she is frustrated that the site is not undergoing a comprehensive testing regimen.

The engineers “are picking locations on the likelihood that they are not going to hit a water line,” she said.

DEC officials contend the locations were selected based on where a well could be easily set up. The state agency wanted to make sure the wells were established in areas not previously sampled.

This is not the first time the site has been tested. Previous investigations conducted in 1987, 1994 and 1999 revealed no hazardous wastes.

A 2000 test conducted on land now occupied by Lowes and other commercial establishments showed trace or low levels of volatile organic compounds and trichloroethylene and lead at levels exceeding groundwater standards, according to the 2017 work plan for the planned hydrogeological investigation.

Two of three drums analyzed contained arsenic, mercury and chromium concentrations above the recommended cleanup levels. The soil in the drum disposal area was found to contain PCBs arsenic, lead, and mercury concentrations above the state’s recommended soil cleanup criteria.

Despite the findings, the site did not qualify to be listed on the state’s Inactive Hazardous Waste Disposal Site registry, according to the DEC.

In 2003, the contaminated soils and materials were removed from the former landfill by the city of Ithaca with DEC’s oversight.

“I am concerned about what is coming out from underneath the site that eventually flows into Cayuga Lake,” Brock said. She also objects to the zoning regulations allowing a housing complex on top of a former dump.

“I have asked city staff to pursue a change in the zoning to restrict the site to commercial use out of concern -- by all levels of common sense –that adults and children should not be living on top of a dump.”

But Brock’s requests have been denied.

Meanwhile, mobile home resident Herkowitz is pleased that the DEC plans to test. She has upgraded her mobile home, likes her landlord and wants to continue living at Nate’s Floral Estates. If anything needs to be remediated, “…let’s get going,” she said.