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Fall Creek lead topic debated


Although there are health risks with visiting a lead-contaminated area of Fall Creek gorge near Ithaca Falls, most people visiting the site probably have not had enough exposure to the toxic element to cause problems, a state health department official said Friday.

Members of an Ithaca company and a citizens' group are calling for the immediate cleanup of the popular swimming, hiking and fishing area. As early as 1995, the state Department of Environmental Conservation has documented high levels of lead and visible lead shot there stemming from the defunct Ithaca Gun factory nearby.

At a news conference Friday, Toxics Targeting president Walter Hang, whose company maps polluted sites around the state, and Rich DePaolo, spokesman for the Cayuga Lake Defense Fund, called on the DEC to hold a public meeting about the site's potential risks, restrict entry to the site and impose a 60-day deadline on the responsible parties for its cleanup.

The City of Ithaca purchased the contaminated site from Cornell University in March for $1 with a the hopes of turning it into a park. Although cleanup of the site has not yet begun, the city has been approved for money from the state's brownfield program, which will reimburse up to 75 percent of the city's cleanup costs.

Hang said Friday that he would post DEC documents related to the site on his company's Web site,

Hang also spearheaded attempts to stop Cornell's Lake Source Cooling Project and convinced the DEC to test for pollutants in the city's southwest area, part of which is a former landfill. It is where the city now plans large-scale commercial development.

His efforts, though, are irking some city officials.

"Walter never seems to tire of shouting wolf every time he catches a glimpse of a Chihuahua," said Matthys Van Cort, the city's director of planning and development. "We are fully aware that the site is contaminated. We bought the site with the knowledge that it is contaminated and we did so in part because we knew if we bought it, it would finally get cleaned up."

There are risks associated with the lead on the site, Gary Robinson, a public health specialist with the state health department who has visited the site numerous times.

Lead can damage the brain and nervous system and cause behavior and learning problems. Robinson said one way people could be exposed to lead at the gorge site was by getting its dust on their hands and then eating something without washing their hands first. It's also possible that a young child, if not adequately supervised, could infest lead-contaminated soil, he said, or that someone could bring home lead dust on their clothing or a blanket. Despite this, most people probably have not been exposed to levels that could cause serious problems, he said.

Robinson didn't think it likely that wind could kick up enough lead dust in the heavily-wooded area to make exposure to inhalation a risk. He also said that skin contact with lead that has reached Fall Creek or the area below the falls would be so small that it probably wouldn't cause problems.

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