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Editorial: Lingering traces of a bygone era



Recently discovered toxic spills throughout the City of Ithaca should be no surprise to area residents, given this area's long industrial history.

Coal tar that was a byproduct of manufactured gas plagues the area near Washington Park. Adjacent to Ithaca Falls, the federal Environmental Protection Agency is spearheading the cleanup of lead near the former Ithaca Gun plant. In the South Hill area, new tests for trichloroethylene pollution of soil and groundwater are under way.

Such pollutants are lingering legacies of an era when the toxicity of such materials was unknown or unpublicized. Ithaca Gun, for example, began manufacturing high-quality shotguns at a time when people rode to work on horseback. At the time, lead was a common material in drinking water pipes. Similarly, trichloroethylene once was a common solvent in industry. It was used for decades -- well before today's common practices for handling and disposing of toxic chemicals were created.

Trichloroethylene, or TCE, is a colorless, non-flammable liquid that reportedly has a sweet odor and taste. In addition to its use as an industrial solvent, TCE is also used in some glues, paint removers and spot removers, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. To date, trichloroethylene is present in at least 852 of the 1,430 National Priorities List sites identified by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Ithaca's trichloroethylene problem was traced to Emerson Power Transmission, formerly Morse Chain. Morse used TCE to clean grease and oil from the power transmission chains manufactured in its South Hill plant, which has been in operation since 1906.

In 1983, Morse ceased using TCE. Then, in 1987, Emerson discovered that TCE previously had leaked into the surrounding environment. The state Department of Environmental Conservation and Emerson agreed on a cleanup plan in 1994, which included pumping and treating groundwater along with other measures.

In May, Walter Hang of Ithaca-based Toxics Targeting announced that soil and groundwater samples taken on South Hill had 28,000 parts per billion of TCE; the state standard for TCE in groundwater if five parts per billion. State officials ordered additional testing and Emerson is drilling test holes in an effort to map the contamination.

Should the community be thankful that people such as Hang are constantly on the prowl for such pollution? Absolutely. Gadflies such as Hang may irritate some government or business officials, but people like him provide an important service. In Ithaca, Hang recently prompted the conservation department to reconsider its handling of Ithaca's TCE pollution. He also was a driving force behind the effort to have the federal government clean up the lead pollution from Ithaca's former gun plant.

Ithaca surely is not alone in having its share of industrial pollution problems arising from the past. Endicott, in nearby Broome County, is wrestling with significant TCE pollution problems itself. TCE was used by many industries, including those making electronics. Endicott was home to a huge IBM plant complex that once manufactured mainframe computers.

On a larger scale, the State of New York and Canada's Ontario province share a problem with Lake Ontario, which has mirex, PCB and other pollutants that are showing up in salmon, trout and other fish. DEC handouts suggest limited consumption of trout, salmon and other fish from that lake.

It is unfortunate that such toxic "legacies" persist in communities throughout the state and country. While there is nothing that can be done to change the past, residents can steer toward a more productive future by keeping the pressure on regulatory agencies to ensure that poisons in the environment are identified, monitored and removed to the fullest possible extent.

Whistle-blowers such as Ithaca's Hang may bother some people, but communities need more people who strive to unearth toxic legacies of our past.

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