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EPA to Wall Off Lead, Arsenic Hazards in Ithaca Falls Gorge


ITHACA — Elevated levels of lead and arsenic from the former Ithaca Gun Factory site are continuing to contaminate one of Ithaca’s most popular tourist attractions — the gorge at Ithaca Falls, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The toxins are falling into the gorge — also known as the Ithaca Falls Natural Area — from the gorge cliff face, which is next to the site, EPA spokesperson Stephen McBay stated via email.

Staff for Weston Solutions, an EPA contractor, prepare to take a sample March 25, 2021, from the debris slope at the foot of south gorge wall at Ithaca Falls. A group of about five people including an EPA representative, worked for at least an hour in the site polluted by lead and arsenic from the former Ithaca Gun site.
(Photo by Simon Wheeler)

When reached for comment about the email, McBay said the contamination appears to migrating from the factory site into the gorge. He couldn’t comment any further before the EPA’s upcoming release of a “Community Update” document about the issue and the agency’s work in the gorge.

McBay sent the email on May 6 in response to questions about EPA testing activities observed in the gorge on March 25.

Staff for Weston Solutions, an EPA contractor, take a sample from an exposed, natural gorge floor, March 25, 2021, at Ithaca Falls. The original gorge floor was exposed after crusher run stone, to the left and right of the sampling area, put in by the EPA to cover contaminated areas, was eroded away.
(Photo by Simon Wheeler)

“In 2018, EPA collected and evaluated soil samples from the steep cliff face that adjoins the former Ithaca Gun facility to the Fall Creek Natural Area,” the email states. “The soil samples confirmed that elevated levels of lead and arsenic remained in the cliff face and continue to contaminate the Natural Area below.”

Officials from the City of Ithaca, which owns the area, couldn’t be reached for further comment. No subsequent test results appear to have been released by the EPA.

Though the email didn’t specify the amount or environmental impact of contamination in the natural area, it states that personnel will be installing a soil containment barrier at the base of the cliff later this month.

“The containment barrier will limit the migration of lead and arsenic contaminated soil from the base of the cliff into the adjacent pathway utilized by visitors to the natural area,” the email states.

Staff for Weston Solutions, an EPA contractor, pack up after taking soil samples on March 25, 2021, in the gorge at Ithaca Falls.
(Photo by Simon Wheeler)

The contamination originated with the Ithaca Gun Factory, which manufactured firearms in a facility, located just above the gorge, from1880 to 1986, according to a 2016 EPA report.

“Decades of material dumping throughout the site, along with lead-containing ammunition, caused soil contamination throughout the property,” the report states.

Cornell University, which used to own the adjacent natural area, tested the soil there in the mid-1990s and found lead in concentrations up to 110,000 milligrams per kilogram, according to the report. The NYSDEC tested the same areas in 1998 and found concentrations of lead up to 215,000 milligrams per kilogram.

“Concentrations of lead increased as sample locations neared the former Ithaca Gun Factory property,” the report states. “The assessment conducted by the NYSDEC concluded that lead shot, along with slag and ash, appeared to have migrated from the former Ithaca Gun Factory to the Ithaca Falls Natural Area.”

In 2000, the City of Ithaca acquired the gorge natural area from Cornell University and made it into a public park, according to the report.

“Tourists come to the park to view Ithaca Falls and Fall Creek,” the 2016 report states. “Teachers from the nearby schools bring children and young adults to the park for science lessons and field trips. The general public uses the park for sunbathing, swimming, fishing, and other outdoor activities.”

Environmental activist Walter Hang said he brought the contamination in both areas to the attention of authorities in 2000. While examining the factory site that year, he found “millions of shotgun pellets on the ground,” Hang recalled.

Between 2000 and 2016, the EPA and the NYSDEC performed clean-up and remediation operations at the site and in the natural area.

But in August 2018, the NYSDEC announced that hazardous levels of lead and other toxins remained at the factory site, making more clean-up efforts necessary.

That same year, the city of Ithaca said the EPA would be mitigating hazards from lead contamination found in the gorge, according to the Ithaca Times. Those efforts would include warning signs, a fence and gravel on the gorge trail to limit peoples’ exposure to the contamination.

The natural gorge floor at Ithaca Falls is visible January 1, 2021, below an eroded layer of protective crusher run stone placed by the EPA on the trail to Ithaca Falls during previous work at the site polluted by lead and arsenic.
(Photo by Walter Hang/Toxics Targeting Inc.)