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Toxic pollutants found at major Ithaca development project; significance debated


Ithaca, N.Y. — Toxic pollutants were found two years ago on the site of a major housing project on Spencer Road that is now very close to receiving the go-ahead for construction, documents first released today show.

Some city officials disagree with a local environmental watchdog on the significance of the findings.

Soil tests were done by a consultant for the developers of Stone Quarry Apartments, as the project is known, in 2012.

The presence of toxins identified in some of those tests came to light in response to a Freedom of Information Law request filed by the environmental watchdog.

“A variety of known and potential cancer-causing toxic chemicals were identified at this location,” the watchdog, Walter Hang, said Monday, “including pollutants associated with incomplete combustion,” such as benzo(a)pyrene and benz(a)anthracene.

Hang, president of the environmental database company Toxics Targeting, which maps toxic spills and dumps, appealed to Mayor Svante Myrick to halt the project until the site is fully examined and cleaned up.

Mayor Myrick, however, said “the contamination was so small the builder could just replace the soil.” Myrick said the environmental consultant for the project had sent the appropriate information to the state DEC and Department of Health but that “neither felt a further review was necessary.”

Myrick criticized Hang for what he characterized as a conveniently timed last-minute push to derail a controversial housing development for poor families that’s been in the works for months.

“This is clearly just an 11th hour attempt to stop a low-income housing project from being built,” Myrick said.

The Stone Quarry development proposal as of July.

The head of Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services also dismissed the significance of Hang’s findings.

“We think it’s a fairly limited area, and we’ve been in contact with (DEC and DoH) about this,” said Paul Mazzarella, executive director of INHS, which is working with PathStone, the developer, on the project.

“We have a plan to remove the contaminated soil on the site, which will be done by a certified company and removed to a certified landfill.”

Mazzarella said that the environmental engineer on the project spoke to state agencies and the parties agreed on how to proceed.

“What we have is a letter from our engineer, which relates his conversation with the Department of Health and DEC about this and contains a cleanup plan of the site,” Mazzarella said.

There is no formally written, state-approved cleanup plan for the site, he said, because the DEC did not think the pollutants were serious enough to trigger a major inquiry — much less a follow-up for how to deal with it.

“They investigated the reports we gave them and then they closed the case,” Mazzarella said.

The “state declined to take any further action on this because they didn’t believe the contamination rose to a level that warranted action by the DEC,” Mazzarella said.

Hang, however, disagreed with Mazzarella and Myrick on at least three major issues.

1 – Hang said the contaminants were of a significant scope and size, not a minuscule part of the development site.

2 – Hang said the Ithaca developer failed to provide the proper information about the toxic materials to the state.

He said DEC officials told him that “they had not received documents they requested from the consulting engineer.”

3 - Additionally, Hang said, the DEC must have required the developer to submit a formal, written cleanup plan after the toxic pollutants were found, Hang said.

“This is not an informal proceeding where you can call Charlie and say, ‘Hey, we’ll work it out,’ ” Hang said. “This is a very onerous legal process that requires specific documentation.”

Hang criticized the city for not producing a state-authorized cleanup plan for the site.


Based on soil testings at the site, the consulting engineer, Tim Seeler, wrote, “These findings confirm the need for the development and implementation of an Environmental Management Plan (EMP) for use during all construction activities on site.”

An attempt to reach Seeler on Monday was unsuccessful. The Ithaca Voice was able to reach the DEC’s Richard Brazell, but he referred comment to the department’s press office. A request to the press office made Monday afternoon had not been returned as of this publication.

Timing for any action is crucial. The project, located at 400 Spencer Road, is on the agenda for the city planning and development board at 6 p.m. Tuesday. The developer, PathStone, is seeking approval for a revised site plan.

The levels of some of the contaminants listed in the report from two years ago, such as lead, acetone, manganese and others, fell within advisable limits for residential construction. Others, such as benzo(a)pyrene, exceeded the limits for any use.

If the board, which approved the previous site plan, gives its blessing, then the last big step before construction begins would be issuance of a building permit, according to Cynthia Brock, the alderperson whose district includes the site.

Hang sent his letter asking for the delay of the project to the mayor and to Darryl C. Towns, Commissioner/CEO of NYS Homes and Community Renewal (HCR), which is providing funding for the project.

For the full text of it:

For the results of Hang’s FOIL request:

Hang said he found it “extraordinarily troubling” that the findings come to light at “the eleventh hour” and due to his FOIL request rather than as an open part of the city’s process for vetting the site.

But Mazzarella, of the INHS, said that the while the information has not been disclosed in the media, it was mentioned in an application for funding and in its application for site plan approval.

“We have not hidden this in anyway,” Mazzarella said.

“We are equally concerned about the health and welfare of the people who live here, and we want to make sure there are no hazards and that there are no environmental concerns.”