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Extensive pollution persists at Ithaca's two most toxic sites


The City of Ithaca’s future might be bright, but this month city officials were served with two stark reminders that it’s far from leaving behind its toxic past.

Within several days of each other, the City of Ithaca received updates on a pair of the city’s most polluted sites at Ithaca Falls and at the former Morse Chain factory, each showing levels of pollutants that, despite past cleanup efforts, have remained incredibly high. At Ithaca Falls, where lead contamination has persisted even after millions of dollars were spent over two decades of cleanup efforts, dangerous levels of contamination were recently detected on the gorge floor (a popular tourist destination) while, at the 60-acre factory complex that previously served as home to Morse Chain, the New York State Department of Conservation recently wrapped up a survey of current levels of contamination at the former industrial facility, which predictably, have stayed at high levels. In the past, the factory had been attributed to the introduction of extensive levels of pollutants in the neighborhoods at the base of the hill.

Here’s a breakdown of what was found:

Morse Chain Pollution

Tapped for an ambitious redevelopment as the multi-use Chain Works District, a recent survey by the DEC found the massive former home to Morse Chain Works to be in need of an extensive clean-up in order to be suitable for residential and commercial development. (The worst-polluted areas would be tapped for industrial use.) Despite documentation of excessive pollution on the site, no clean-up had ever occurred, even as toxins seeped into the soils of the South Hill neighborhood beneath it. (Affected homes had the impacts of the pollution mitigated through exhaust systems similar to those recently employed in Fall Creek after toxic contaminants were found beneath homes near the former Ithaca Gun site.)

According to the report, which was contracted by the developer and overseen by the DEC, numerous areas of the complex tested at action levels for numerous, highly toxic compounds in soil and water samples taken at the site, including trichloroethene (TCE), tetrachloroethene (PCE), cis-1,2-dichloroethene (DCE), and vinyl chloride; petroleum hydrocarbons; polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs); barium; and cyanide, samples of which tested highest in the areas of the dirtiest activity within the former factory.

Additionally, previous sampling events at the site have shown numerous toxic compounds (including TCE, DCE and/or 1,1,1-trichloroethane) have shown up in sampling of the indoor air at the plant’s buildings in concentrations greater than the NY State Department of Health indoor air guidelines.

“This information, combined with presence of CVOCs in soil and groundwater beneath on-site buildings, indicate that soil vapor intrusion is occurring or has the potential to occur,” the report reads.

In the coming months, the NYSDEC will develop a draft cleanup plan based on an extensive study of all cleanup options available at the site. The NYSDEC will announce the draft cleanup plan in a future fact sheet (possibly as soon as next month, a DEC source said) and present it to the public for public comment.

A full copy of the report is available for review at the Tompkins County Public Library.

Ithaca Falls

When clean-up efforts were apparently “closed” after an extensive effort by the United States Environmental Protection Agency in 2015, EPA investigator Donald Graham told the Ithaca Journal that contamination at Ithaca Falls was likely to reoccur at the troubled site, where a botched cleanup in the early-2000s has created a scenario where lead-contaminated soil from the former Ithaca Gun factory site has trickled down the gorge wall even after years of remediation.

Last Friday, the City of Ithaca announced the inevitable: more work needed to be done.

In a news release, the city announced that the EPA would be taking action to address elevated levels of lead contamination detected in soil in the Ithaca Falls Gorge Trail area below the former Ithaca Gun factory site, posting signs and accelerating plans for a fence and additional gravel to be placed on the gorge trail in an effort to minimize exposure to the lead-contaminated soil.

Tested in February, documents obtained by environmental advocate and investigator Walter Hang showed extremely high-level lead contamination up to 69,800 parts per million in some parts of the gorge. For reference, toxic lead levels are defined as 400 parts per million.

The full testing results can be found here.