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Watchdog: Major Ithaca redevelopment site has 'mind-boggling' levels of contaminants


ITHACA, NY - It looks to be one of the biggest development projects in Ithaca's history, but concerns are being raised about major toxicity lurking just below the surface of the would-be "Chain Works District" redevelopment.

The Chain Works District project seeks to reclaim the former Emerson Power Transmission plant (which was formerly the Morse Chain Company factory) site -- a 94-acre parcel of land situated on Ithaca's South Hill. It contains some 300,000 square feet worth of inter-connected industrial buildings, which operated in various forms from 1905 to 2010.

It's an exciting project, to be sure. Once fully developed, it could bring over 900 desperately needed new housing units to Ithaca, situated as part of a mixed-use, urbanized "live, work, play" zone. Buzzwords aside, the prospect of turning what is essentially a dead and useless area into a vibrant new neighborhood is an enticing one.

However, some residents -- including a few local officials -- are approaching the project with a healthy dose of skepticism.

There are a number of concerns about the project, but the most prominent ones expressed at a public comment session at Cinemapolis on Tuesday relate to the toxins in the soil and groundwater at the site.

Some background: the area is classified as Class 2 Superfund site, which the NYS DEC describes as "a significant threat to public health and/or the environment and requiring action." For clarity's sake, it's worth noting there are five classes of toxic sites, with class 2 being the second worst.

Remedial work to fully contain site contamination is expected to cost Emerson millions, especially since residential uses have more stringent clean-up standards. The DEC will be required to sign off on any residential plans in order to move forward.

"Mind-boggling" levels of contaminants

Tuesday's public comment session was intended to the give the public a chance to respond to the Draft Generic Environmental Impact Statement (DGEIS) for the Chain Works development. This public comment period ends on May 10.

Rich DePaolo, the chair of the Town of Ithaca's Planning Committee, said that he was concerned about writing a "blank check" by approving the development when it was unclear what specific actions would be taken to remediate the toxicity present.

"There's a laundry list of items that are typically applied in situations where sites are extensively contaminated, but there are virtually no specifics related to this site," DePaolo said. "The future is being laid out as one that's going to be addressed on a site-specific basis as issues come up. I can tell you, that's troubling from a lay perspective and as a legislator being asked to grant permission."

DePaolo noted that he hadn't read the entire DGEIS, but that is hard to fault anyone for, since the full document weighs in at over 80,000 pages. In light of that, DePaolo also said he hoped that the developer would be open to extending the comment period beyond the current 60-day timeframe.

"This has been an issue for decades, and the fact that the site hasn't been properly remediated or controlled up to this point does not give me a lot of confidence that granting this sort of carte blanche is going to result in the level of remediation I'd like to see at this site," DePaolo concluded.

Walter Hang, of the environment watchdog company Toxics Targeting also spoke, saying that the site was host to "mind-boggling" levels of pollution that hadn't seen proper remediation in 30 years.

Hang echoed DePaolo's statement, saying he had no confidence in the Department of Environment Conservation (DEC) or in Emerson (who is responsible for the site's cleanup) to follow through with cleanup efforts.

Hang urged city and town officials not to approve moving forward with the project until there was a "comprehensive, viable, meaningful cleanup plan" that had been negotiated openly with the public having access.

"The bottom line is, this is Class 2 site, it's polluted, it's massively polluted and it hasn't been cleaned up. That's the first priority," Hang said. "The high level sources of contamination have to be dug out. Source removal. It's gotta go... This is a continuing problem. It's irresponsible that this hasn't been resolved and can't be ignored any longer."

Interior of existing structure at the Emerson site. (Featured photos courtesy of UnChained Properties LLC planning documents)

Cart before the horse

Cynthia Brock, who represents Ithaca's first ward on Common Council, spoke at length on the subject. She began by saying that she was excited at the prospect that this project could provide the needed leverage to actually ensure that an effective cleanup effort could be made.

Brock leveled some criticisms at the DGEIS' analysis of population and traffic, suggesting that it didn't provide an accurate portrayal of the how many people would live in the area and how the area would properly accommodate them, but she too expressed serious serious concerns about the toxicity of the site.

"Even though we like to look at the pictures and envision all of this, first and foremost, we are dealing with a Class 2 Superfund hazardous waste site," Brock said. "It makes me think, when I'm thinking about traffic and playgrounds, that I'm putting the cart before the horse."

Brock said that, to her understanding, that the source of the contamination had never properly identified, but reports had shown that the contamination levels were not going down, indicating that there was a huge contamination source beneath the site that would remain a concern.

Some of the mitigation plans involve "capping" -- that is, essentially leaving the toxins in place but providing a layer of protection between the contaminants and the people that would inhabit the area. Brock and Hang both said they were not confident that such measures would be adequate.

"Until we know what the cleanup plan will be, it is very hard from a zoning standpoint, from a planning standpoint... as a legislator who ultimately will represent a significant portion of these residents, it's hard to put forth a plan that says we want residential housing there," Brock said.