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Get the Lead Out: Ithaca Falls Still Contaminated



So read the yellow signs that were brought out of storage this year when lead was, again, detected in the Fall Creek gorge below a cliff where the Ithaca Gun factory once stood.

There’s a story that’s fun to tell tourists scrutinizing these signs with concern: The lead (you tell them) came from Ithaca Gun workers test firing guns straight at the gorge walls. Watch their reactions, particularly on a warm summer day when children and dogs are frolicking in the water and fly fishers are casting lines across the creek.

It’s a tall tale to tell, at least so far as Les Hovencamp knows. Hovencamp, who now specializes in repairing Ithacas at his Diamond Gunsmithing shop on Dey Street, started working at Ithaca Gun in 1974 at age 18. There was a firing range in the basement of the gun factory when he first started working on the assembly line. Before Hovencamp moved over to the service department in 1977, then located on West Cascadilla Street, tubes had been built to the outside that contained the shots from testers firing from the factory’s third-floor.

“The tube came out of the building with steel plate all around it, and kind of arced, like an elbow fitting on a water pipe,” Hovencamp said. “It gradually curved and slowed [the shot] down, and there was a steel plate at the end that deadened the shot.”

The lead shot dropped into a holding container at the end of its journey. Typically, testers took two shots, one with a double load to test the barrel’s durability.

Once a month or so, Hovencamp said he saw crews go out and “shovel the crap out of there. I don’t know where it went from there.”

Most of the lead must have gone somewhere else, or we would call the place “Heavy Metal Mountain” today. Millions of guns were made and test fired on Gun Hill from the time Ithaca Gun took over the Fall Creek Hub & Spoke factory in 1883 until the plant’s closure in 1986. Ithaca was famous for its shotguns. The legendary trick shooter Annie Oakley was a fan, and its highest-end model was named after John Philip Sousa, whose own trap gun had mermaids engraved on its golden stock. During World War II, the plant made a half-million .45 caliber Army service revolvers. An early customer was J.B. Duke’s American Tobacco monopoly, which ordered 10,000 guns in 1901. That enabled Ithaca Gun to double its operations with a 90-foot building expansion, according to the company’s historian, Walter Claude Snyder. Another less savory customer was Argentina’s right-wing government of the 1970s “Dirty War” period, which favored “Itaka” riot guns, according to a 1976 Ithaca New Times report.

Though Ithaca Guns are still manufactured in Ohio, after the brand made stops at the former King Ferry high school and briefly in Auburn, the longest lasting legacy left in this city by the factory is contamination from lead and organic chemicals around Ithaca Falls.

Since Walter Hang of Toxics Targeting brought lead contamination at Ithaca Gun to public attention in August 2000, a haphazard fight has been conducted to clean up the polluted site, with pitched battles, declarations of victory, and then admissions that the work isn’t done yet.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency completed its most recent cleanup of lead last week in the Ithaca Falls natural area, near the south cliff. And there’s dirty work left to be done.

“We believe there is some redistribution of lead in the same area,” Don Graham, the EPA’s on-site coordinator, confirmed on Monday, Oct. 12. “We plan on cordoning that off until further investigations can be done.”

It’s safe to say there will be further flare-ups of publicity around the Ithaca Gun site, so let us take this opportunity to add a few words on the subject to the easily read public record. Anyone whose thirst for information isn’t satisfied by this can dip into impact statements and work plans in the county library or on the Community Advisory Group page at

Layout of the Site

A little explanatory geography is in order before beginning. The main gun factory building was located right across Lake Street from Gun Hill Apartments on what is now a blank, overgrown site where whitetail deer now graze. Just on the other side of the boiler stack with “Ithaca Gun” spelled out in white letters is the “mill race” or “raceway.” From dams on Fall Creek above the falls, water flowed through a tunnel blasted by Ezra Cornell in the 1830s and into the raceway, where it powered wheels which made the factories work, before the electrical grid and power plant days. There was a bridge across the raceway as late as 2004, which led onto the “Island,” which is the top of the cliff that so many visitors walk along at the base of the falls.

Current plans for these sites include townhomes on the former factory site, a project led by developer Frost Travis, and a city-owned Ithaca Falls Overlook Park on the Island, which reportedly has some spectacular views of the falls from a higher perspective and excellent opportunities to get stuck on the cliff face if one should climb downwards from the top.

Is It Dirty There? (Hush-Hush Years)

After Ithaca Gun went into bankruptcy in October 1986, its assets and name were sold to members of the Neill family, and the real estate went to Mark Finkelstein, who built Gun Hill Apartments on a site where once there was parking for the factory. Finkelstein, who didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment on this story, commissioned a study in 1988 from Radian Corporation.

That study found “significant lead contamination ... in all of the soil samples collected outside of the plant” of up to 51,000 µg/100cm2, and made the rather astute recommendation “that the interior surfaces of the building be cleaned as part of the building renovation.”

“This cleaning could be accompanied by high pressure washing, washing with a detergent solution, or wet vacuuming,” the report reads. Trichloroethylene (TCE)—the same solvent used to clean machines at Emerson Power Transmission on South Hill—was found in the degreasing room on the second floor, at a concentration of 4,200 parts per billion, the acceptable federal workplace standard exposure is 100 parts per million (ppm) now. Radian recommended the floor be removed, and said that significant ground water contamination was not indicated based on limited sampling. As a plus, it was noted there was no lead paint found in the building.

It’s unclear if the Radian report was provided at the time to any government agencies. The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is first on record investigating the site in July 1995, in a search for uranium. Apparently during a brief period in 1961-62 Ithaca Gun was subcontracted by National Lead of Ohio to test forge uranium tubes. Nothing more than background levels of uranium were found.

Cornell owned the property at the falls’ base until 2000, and several studies in the ‘90s are referenced in the record, but not readily available. In 1997 lead contamination was found in the gorge, and an exchange between Cornell and the DEC is as about as funny as records of this sort get. Robert Bland, an environmental engineer for Cornell, wrote a letter to Charles Branagh of the DEC in May 1997 stating that the “obvious source” of contamination was the adjacent Ithaca Gun property.

“It appears that lead shot may continue to migrate via rain water runoff from the Ithaca Gun property to ours,” Bland wrote, and “the source of this contamination must first be contained” before any Cornell-financed cleanup could be expected to happen.

In his response, Branagh might have been making indignant harummphing noises while writing; he told Bland the DEC was reserving the right to recover all costs for a cleanup, because they “did not find any continuing source for the lead shot” on Gun Hill.

“We will notify you when our contractor will begin work,” Branagh concluded. The next month, he wrote again in a much more conciliatory tone; Albany had told him lead was not regulated as a hazardous waste, but, in Branagh’s opinion he did “believe it would be good to put a soil cover on [the contamination].”

The city had its first environmental site assessment performed on the site in October 1997 by Enviro-Control Technologies of Johnson City, apparently as part of the process to find parkland it could acquire to offset a portion of Inlet Island that was made available for development. The DEC performed its own sampling in spring 1998, which was the round that produced a sample of lead contamination at 215,000 ppm, which has been circulated ever since as the high number for on-site contamination.

It’s Dirty There, For Sure

The Public Era—or at least, publicly reported era—of Ithaca Gun contamination began in August 2000, when Hang says he was “tipped off” to lead contamination up on the Island.“The locals knew about contamination, Cornell knew about contamination, and the city knew about contamination,” Hang said. “The city was told by its own consultant, Enviro Control, don’t take title to the property, unless you have a responsible party agreement in place.”

The city had completed a purchase of what’s now the Ithaca Falls natural area in March 2000 from Cornell for $1 and guarantees of a $50,000 maintenance fund on hand. When Hang publicized the lead on the Island, the story accompanied by the first of many photographs of shotgun pellets held in hand, then-Mayor Alan Cohen told the Ithaca Journal he was “concerned that misinformation about toxicity and imminent danger might be being spread that will cause undue alarm in the general public.”

Since then, the city has generally peddled a “keep calm” message with Hang’s riposte invariably being along the lines of “let’s clean it up all the way.” That dynamic again played out in September when Hang used the results of the EPA testing to call for closing up the falls area, with Mayor Svante Myrick saying that the EPA told him there was no immediate danger.

In 2000 Cohen said that $100,000 was set aside for clean-up, with the city thinking 75 percent of the cost would come from DEC brownfield funding. What ended up happening was the EPA stepped in to do a cleanup that cost nearly $5 million after a September 2000 study found, via X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy analysis, that ... there was lots of lead on the site.

The EPA cleanup was a study in cooperation and openness, according to Kathryn Gleason, a landscape architecture professor at Cornell. A community group headed by Sarah Steuteville “was able to flag the unusual vegetation on the island,” Gleason said, like oaks and blueberries, and transplant others during the process. Unfortunately for the vegetation on the Island, it turned out that heavy equipment and full removal was necessary; the Paragon Environmental cleanup completed there in spring 2015 took the contaminated soil down to bedrock.

The EPA did demolish buildings on the Island in 2002 and had to ask for an increase in budgetary authority in 2003, a running theme in environmental remediations. After much digging and dirt-moving, including using vacuums mounted on the backs of trucks to reach areas where heavy equipment couldn’t go, the EPA’s regional administrator, Jane Kenny, thought all was complete since soil levels were showing an average of 110 ppm.

“In the spring, after some minor restoration work is completed, EPA will return the once-contaminated Fall Creek Gorge area to its former scenic grandeur,” Kenny said in an Oct. 29, 2004 press release. “The terrain in this area made what would have been a relatively straight-forward cleanup much more difficult, but we got the job done.”

As soon after as 2006, that claim was refuted. A Cornell student found lead concentrations of over 31,000 ppm outside the abandoned factory and testing conducted by Hang with the Journal’s support found samples that ranged up to 184,000 ppm, along with arsenic above safe levels. (Rachel Hendricks’ 2011 honors thesis on the site history was a very useful starting point for this report.)

After the installation of water monitoring wells by DEC and groundwater testing, demolition of the factory began in 2009 and was completed in 2010.

In 2012, the to-be overlook site was split off from the privately-owned property and put into the DEC’s Environmental Restoration Program, which initiated a wave of testing groundwater and soil vapor intrusion into area basements. Some permanent monitoring wells were installed in 2013, with testing mostly taking place east of Aurora Street and south to Queen Street.

TCE and chloroform were found in amounts less than groundwater standards at the last reported testing from contractor Aztech in June 2014. Soil vapor intrusion testing performed on air quality and basement subslabs at 12 homes and businesses in February and March 2015 led to five places being recommended for further monitoring by DEC during the winter. Hang has critiqued the groundwater and soil vapor monitoring for not expanding its sample further, outside the probable “plume” of contamination from Gun Hill.

And that’s where we’re at. For now.

Hang and Myrick have both asked the EPA, in their differing ways, for reconsideration of the Ithaca Gun site on the “national priorities list,” which puts a site in line for Superfund money.

If further sampling finds there is an “imminent and substantial threat” and no other entities can pay or otherwise handle a cleanup, that’s when the EPA gets involved, Graham said. The site was already considered for the designation at the time of the first EPA clean-up, and didn’t make the cut.

So, more of this talk is to come. For his part, Hovencamp calls cleanup talk “a big hype” and says since he stayed with Ithaca Gun till they moved out of New York, he’ll “stick up for them.”

“I’ve eaten tons of fish out of that creek and known people who have lived there all their life and don’t know anyone who’s gotten ill from it,” Hovencamp said. “Lead comes from the earth, and you have to handle it forever to really get sick off it.”

And yet, when a customer, a Cornell professor who lives in Fall Creek, came in asking him about the lead contamination, Hovencamp had no uncertain words for the man. Citing the chemicals used at the plant—cyanide for heat treating, TCE in the degreasing room—“I said, Gary, you’ve got a lot more to f****** worry about than lead.”