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Department of Environmental Conservation Investigates Groundwater Contamination in Ithaca


A mobile home park in Ithaca built on a dump in the 1970s is undergoing investigation by the Department of Environmental Conservation to detect whether contaminants in the area’s groundwater are a potential hazard to residents’ health and a source of toxic leakage into the town water supply.

The DEC reported in 1986 that the property, known as Nate’s Floral Estates, was home to 1,515 gallons of “solid waste” with “characteristics of ignitability” and 3,800 gallons of lead. Since then, the site has undergone waste testing every few years.

The investigation aims to determine whether the former Ithaca landfill is “causing a threat to public health or the environment,” a representative of the DEC told The Sun.

Similar testing since 2000 has repeatedly ruled the amount of contaminants in the area as insufficient to “require mitigation,” according to a January 2018 fact sheet released by the DEC.

The last test in 2015 and 2016 sampled the air beneath various homes, and findings did not reach the DEC’s thresholds for further action — thresholds that are “too lax,” according to Alderperson Cynthia Brock (D-1st Ward).

In response to The Clean Water Infrastructure Act of 2018, which calls for the DEC to determine if locations with solid waste are significantly contaminating the drinking water, a new round of sampling began in early March, which was a change from original plans to begin testing in February.

“Studies and testing will demonstrate a snapshot in time,” Brock said. “But just because that moment in time might not hit a particular threshold doesn’t mean that continued exposure to it doesn’t have a negative effect.”

Residents of the Estates obtain their drinking water from Ithaca’s water supply, which relies on a reservoir found three miles upgradient of the former dump. The DEC told The Sun in an email that “the groundwater below Nate’s has no impact on drinking water in the area.”

Previous records, however, indicate a history of toxic contamination in the groundwater near the property, which “could be drawn into the mains and, consequently, cause a health hazard to the complete City Water System, along with the system at Nate’s Floral Estates” in the event of leaks and subsequent breaks in the City System, or due to a fire, according to a 1987 letter to Dr. Reuben Weiner, the founder of the Estates, by Ivan C. Burris, plumbing director of the City of Ithaca.

In her conversations with current residents, Brock explained that residents have expressed a desire to know about the history and any unusual chemical composition of the site.

“They were concerned about the water,” she said. “Many residents have health concerns.”

However, Thomas Annal, regional materials management engineer, said in a letter to Brock that the testing does not strive to identify “long term trends in groundwater quality,” given that the groundwater under Nate’s travels to Cayuga Lake rather than to the reservoir that supplies the residents’ water. This poses a potential contamination to the lake as well, according to Walter Hang, president of the Toxics Targeting, an environmental database service that analyzes environmental sources and data “withheld from public disclosure due to homeland security concerns,” according to their website.

In a DEC report available in the archives but not recorded in their online database, an anonymous caller reported an “oil film on top of water in [a] hole” on a street 0.4 miles from the Estates in November 2003. The DEC investigator on the case stated that substances such as ashes and organic material resulted in odors and residue over the water, emulating petroleum.

In 2005, however, similar testing on the property near the Estates revealed a “low level [of] petroleum” on the former tank area of the landfill that affected the groundwater, according to the DEC Spill Incidents Database.

The DEC’s planned testing on the site “is not comprehensive in any way, shape, or form because you can see where all of the earlier monitoring took place, and you can see that this is a huge site,” said Hang.

Hang referred to the water supply system of the mobile home park as “totally illegal,” which further complicates the issue if the drinking supply is in fact contaminated. In the past, the site faced complications when expanding because the water system is made of plastic rather than metal, according to Hang.

Comments by Burris from a May 1987 Common Council meeting support Hang’s statements, confirming that the mobile home park’s water system was “not installed to Code” because of its use of plastic piping for the water supply — “not permitted anywhere in [the] State” and indicative of a “a proprietary system” that lacked involvement in the installation.

“I believe that with your knowledge as a physician, you can see the probable health problems that could occur from such a cross connection of waste waters with the public water system,” Burris wrote to Weiner.

Even before the conception of Nate’s Floral Estates, the site was initially occupied by Wallace Steel, Inc., which periodically produced smoke, evoked repeated complaints from civilians and spontaneously burned from harmful chemicals combusting in the late 1960s. After this, city leaders agreed to close Wallace Steel and designated the area as a proper town dump.

When the dump was shut down in 1970, county officials called for the debris of the property to be bulldozed and later covered with two feet of topsoil. Soon afterwards, the owner of the property transferred the land to his step-son, Dr. Reuben Weiner, who later created Nate’s Floral Estates on the land.

A walk around the edge of the property today will reveal rusting drums — which previously stored herbicides and DDT, a pesticide banned for agricultural uses internationally in 2001— concrete, a tire and other debris from the property’s days as a dump.

City developers decided to “just push [the debris] to the edge and threw some dirt on it, and the dirt has washed away,” according to Brock. “It’s not hard to see at all.”

When the zoning of the land changed from industrial to residential in 1972, Wallace Steel’s own president Marvin J. Freeman wrote to the Common Council: “… the objection of Wallace Steel, Inc. to the rezoning of the old City Dump from Industrial to Residential has been based upon our sincere belief that the rezoning of this particular area is not in the best interest of the City … ”

“They vehemently fought against [constructing Nate’s Floral Estates],” Brock said.

Little is certain about what would happen to residents of the park if it were to be shut down, according to Brock. But what does remain clear to her is that “science and common sense would say that humans being should not be living on a dump.”

Residents of Nate’s Floral Estates received a copy of the fact sheet in February and met with the DEC contractor who performs the sampling through a question and answer event, the DEC told The Sun.

The DEC’s fact sheet may have been the first official notice residents received regarding the investigation, according to Brock.

Once the new round of testing is over, the DEC will create a report and use the results to determine whether further investigation will be necessary.

“The bottom line is the public expects government to protect their health and to protect the environment,” Hang said. “And then when you look at the detail of these decision making proceedings you say ‘Wow … [Ithaca’s politicians] knew about these problems decades ago and didn’t protect the residents of this trailer park.’”