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Lead contamination concerns linger at Ithaca Falls and former gun factory


ITHACA, N.Y. — Lead contamination has been a persistent issue in the area of Ithaca Falls, starting up at the former Ithaca Gun Factory site to the Ithaca Falls Overlook, and into the gorge of Ithaca Falls.

Though the Ithaca Falls gorge area, which frequently draws hikers and fishermen, has been cleaned up several times and the DEC declared "cleanup complete" on the site in September 2017, high levels of lead were again found in February 2018.

One of two signs warning of contaminated soil that has been destroyed. Photo taken Sept. 13, 2018.
(Kelsey O'Connor/The Ithaca Voice)

The main concern is lead-contaminated soil, which has drifted down from the former Ithaca Gun Factory, which manufactured firearms and munitions from 1885 to 1986.

To help keep people from coming into contact with contaminated soil, the EPA laid down gravel over the walkway of the gorge trail where elevated levels of lead were found in the spring. Signs posted on the trail also warn people of lead.

One yellow sign posted by the DEC on the trail leading to the base of Ithaca Falls warns, "Lead contaminated soils have been detected in this area." It advises people to avoid contact with "surface materials" and thoroughly wash hands, footwear and clothes if contact occurs. One other large yellow sign appears to have been posted closer to the beginning of the trail, but it has been burned. Other mentions of the lead contamination are on smaller-print signs posted along the edge of the trail that is fenced off where fresh rockfall shows active erosion.

The current signage is not a deterrent for people visiting the trail. During a walk-through in mid-September, in a 10-minute span, there were at least a dozen people sitting on rocks, in the water and taking photos in front of the waterfall. A kid's tricycle was sitting on the rocks next to a family.

Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick did not respond to a request for comment via email about signage and other issues surrounding lead contamination.

Visitors enjoy Ithaca Falls on Sept. 13.
(Kelsey O'Connor/The Ithaca Voice)

Clean-up efforts have taken place several times in the past, but lead continues to reemerge. Between 2002 and 2004, EPA removed more than 6,000 tons of lead-contaminated soil from above the gorge, related to the former gun factory.

Ithaca Falls is located directly downhill from the former Ithaca Gun Factory site, which is known to still be highly contaminated with lead concentrations ranging from 66 parts per million to 190,000, the DEC states. The allowable amount in soil for residential use is 400 ppm. Lead continues to migrate down to the Ithaca Falls gorge area from erosion of the Ithaca Gun property.

A couple weeks ago, members of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency visited Ithaca to collect samples along the cliff face of the southern portion of the Fall Creek gorge area to determine if "heavy metal contamination has spread from the former Ithaca Gun manufacturing facility above the Natural Area," Mary Mears, public affairs director for Region 2 of the U.S. EPA, said via email Monday.

Mears said a report detailing the results is anticipated later this year and will be made available to the public.

In August, the DEC issued a fact sheet about a remedial investigation report about the former Ithaca Gun Factory site at 121-125 Lake Street, which stated the site poses a "significant threat to public health or the environment." High concentrations of lead were found to be present in the soil over nearly the entire site. The area is considered a Brownfield Site, part of New York's Brownfield Cleanup Program. The program encourages the voluntary cleanup of "brownfields" so they can be redeveloped. Local developer Travis Hyde Properties announced big plans in July to redevelop the former factory into apartments.

The remedial investigation report released by the DEC is part of the Brownfield Cleanup process and will guide the developer's cleanup plan. Frost Travis, of Travis Hyde Properties, said in August that cleanup efforts will run parallel to development, and when the DEC approves their work plan they will begin to clean the site. The DEC will be responsible for any off-site cleanup.

But local environmental activist and president of Toxics Targeting Walter Hang said he has lost faith that the state can properly clean up the site. He said he and others have known the site is contaminated for 18 years, and still lead remains.

At a press conference held after the DEC's announcement of contamination at the former factory, Hang called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to nominate all three areas — the Ithaca Gun Site, the Overlook and Ithaca Falls gorge — to the national priority list for federal Superfund cleanup by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

At a press conference in late August, Walter Hang shows pictures of contamination in the area of Ithaca Falls.

"I am telling the governor enough is enough, with all due respect," Hang said. "The state has no plan to protect public health and the environment from these documented toxic hazards and that's how come I believe the time has come, given this endless failure on the part of New York State to clean up these normally very, very highly trafficked areas. The EPA's got to be called in."

However, Sean Mahar, assistant commissioner of public affairs for the NYS DEC said, "any assertion that the state is not comprehensively cleaning up this site is just patently false." He said people in Ithaca should have "full faith and confidence" that the state will comprehensively clean up the site.

He said the EPA is currently handling cleanup of the gorge trail leading to Ithaca Falls, Mahar said, and the next step for the gun factory site is to develop a cleanup plan, which will be made available to the public when complete.

"What we have here on the site is a comprehensive remediation using all the tools at our disposal through the Superfund and Brownfields programs," Mahar said. "We're working with the EPA and the city and the state to get the comprehensive cleanup that everyone wants to see. First and foremost in our mind is always ensuring that the public is protected and we've taken steps obviously at the gorge trail to make sure people aren't coming into contact with any contaminants there. Additional portions of the site are fenced off to eliminate contact there and we're very mindful of making sure that activities happen quickly and in the right way to clean up this site. That's exactly what we're doing."

Mahar encouraged anyone with questions to contact the DEC. Per the fact sheet, project-related questions can be directed to Project Manager Gary Priscott at or 607-775-2545, ext. 116. Project-specific health-related questions can be directed to Steven Berniger of the NYSDOH at or 518-402-7860.

The EPA is expected to release a report on the mid-September sample collection by the end of the year. For more information about the DEC's cleanup program at the Ithaca Gun Factory site, go to the Environmental Remediation Databases, click "Environmental Site Remediation Database Search" and enter the site code, "C755019."