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Could Ithaca Falls be re-opened as an EPA Superfund site?


Lead shot found at Ithaca Falls in 2015.

Test results from soil samples collected by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) in August 2017, but not publicly disclosed until last week, confirm what investigators found in February 2018 – lead levels on the Ithaca Falls Gorge Trail exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) removal management level at 400 parts per million (PPM).

“Neither DEC nor EPA alerted the public to this documented public health threat. That is why I did,” said environmental advocate Walter Hang.

Hang obtained the results from the EPA. Conducted in August 2017 and February 2018, the tests found lead in soils samples the Ithaca Falls Natural Area at 19,100 PPM and 69,800 PPM respectively.

“Every adult, child and pet who walked along the Ithaca Falls Gorge Trail since at least 2015 was exposed to extraordinarily high levels of lead contamination that could threaten their long-term health,” he said.

In response to the test results, the EPA has “placed a stone cap over areas where elevated levels of lead were found,” said Elias Rodriguez, EPA press officer in an email. The cap consists of two loads of three-inch river stones compacted.

In addition, erosion booms were placed at the foot of the gorge wall to prevent additional lead contaminated material from sliding onto the trail floor when it rains, said Erin Silk, Department of Health spokesperson.

These are interim measures to protect public health until the DEC and EPA complete their investigation of the cliff face and determine how to prevent further deposition of lead-impacted soils below the former Ithaca Gun Factory site, where guns and munitions were manufactured from 1860 to 1986. Spent lead shot from the testing of firearms was disposed on a steep-sloped property adjacent to the gun factory.

“We haven't decided to completely fence off access to the gorge trail, but if the DEC or EPA orders us to do so we will, “ said Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick in an email.

In April, the City of Ithaca posted a yellow sign on a tree near the entrance to the gorge trail saying, “WARNING – LEAD CONTAMINATED SOILS HAVE BEEN DETECTED IN THIS AREA.”

The sign advises the public to avoid contact with surface materials and to thoroughly wash hands, footwear and clothes if contact occurs. But there is no warning about the specific dangers that lead poses to children, especially those under three years old.

Richard Canfield, senior research associate in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell, recommends that parents carry toddlers and infants visiting the area and wash their hands and clothes afterwards or avoid the area altogether.

“In my opinion, children should not be allowed to play in the dirt in that area. They should avoid the area on windy days when the ground is dry,” he said in an email.

Murray McBride, professor in soil and crop sciences at Cornell, similarly advises, “Parents should be cautioned about children going in there.”

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on its website states “No safe blood level in children has been identified. Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement.” Like CDC, the Tompkins County Health Department on its website advises parents to “keep your child away from sources of lead.”

This is not the first time high lead levels were detected at the base of the gorge at the Ithaca Falls Natural Area. From 2002-2004, the EPA removed lead-contaminated soil and other material from the former gun site above the falls at a cost of about $4.8 million.

Again, in 2015, EPA removed 200 cubic yards of loose stone and lead-contaminated soil in the park that EPA officials at the time said likely came from the “island above.” The island refers to land bordering the former gun factory.

In September 2017, the DEC issued its record of decision for the Ithaca Falls Overlook site, owned by the City of Ithaca. The overlook site includes the island and three other separate areas. The site can be can be accessed on Lake Street across from Gun Hill Residences and extends north to the Fall Creek gorge.

DEC determined “that the site no longer poses a threat to human health or the environment,” and no further action was required. Hang disagrees with the DEC’s findings. He asked, “How could the state say the site does not pose a threat to public health” when a month earlier high lead levels were detected on the gorge trail?

DEC contends the gorge trail and the overlook are separate sites that Hang is conflating.

“It is clear to us that Mr. Hang does not understand the remedial process or at worst he is deliberately attempting to deceive residents of this community, “ said Sean Mahar, DEC spokesperson.

Recent lead soil test results obtained by Toxics Targeting's Walter Hang.

Hang responded saying, "Based on the Department of Environmental Conservation's own maps and ample visual evidence, State environmental authorities totally botched the clean up of the northern face of the Island Overlook by failing to require the removal of tons of industrial debris, coal ash and other toxic materials that later fell into the gorge trail area below due to the force of gravity. As a result, the pathway that thousands of visitors follow to the base of Ithaca Falls became highly toxic - contaminated."

Hang has asked the EPA to include Ithaca Falls, Ithaca Falls Overlook and Ithaca gun sites on the National Priority List for federal Superfund clean up. In 2002, EPA evaluated the gun factory site and determined it did not qualify for consideration and placement on the priority list of sites meriting cleanup.

“The City remains in favor of a comprehensive clean up of the contamination,” Mayor Myrick said. But as of press time, he did not respond to a follow-up question inquiring whether the city has requested that the sites be put on EPA’s priority list for cleanup, under the 1980 federal law, commonly known as Superfund.

EPA is willing to take another look and review whether the sites qualify for Superfund cleanup, said Rodriguez, the EPA press officer. But the DEC, the lead agency with direct oversight responsibilities for the site, has not made this request.

“Should there be such a request by New York State, we would fully consider that request,” said Rodriguez.