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Toxic Lead, Arsenic Removal from Ithaca Falls Begins Next Week


ITHACA — For the second time in two decades, the Environmental Protection Agency will be cleaning hazardous lead and arsenic contamination from the gorge at Ithaca Falls, one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions.

The work, which is scheduled to begin on May 18 or 19, will include the installation of a wall to prevent the contaminants from spreading from the base of the gorge cliff to the visitor pathway, according to Mike Basile, the EPA’s Community Involvement Coordinator for the project.

“It’s going to take about three weeks to remove lead and arsenic-contaminated soil at the base of the cliff, then we’ll begin construction of the barrier wall,” Basile said.

On May 6, EPA officials revealed that elevated levels of lead and arsenic are continuing to migrate from the former Ithaca Gun Factory site, into the gorge cliff face and then falling into the gorge. The factory site is just above the gorge, which is also known as the Fall Creek Natural Area.

City of Ithaca officials and members of Common Council talk to staff of the EPA and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Tuesday May 11, 2021 in the Ithaca Falls gorge. Much of the discussion was about how to keep children away from contaminants that continue to fall at the foot of the gorge wall.
(Photo by Simon Wheeler)

“While EPA has removed a large quantity of contaminated soil and debris from the site, it is evident that more remains,” an EPA Community Update states. The City of Ithaca posted a link to the update on its website today.

“The barrier will control material that might be dislodged from the cliff face in the future,” the update states. “It will protect visitors to the Fall Creek Nature Area from exposure to contaminated soil.”

Though he couldn’t speak to the specific levels of contamination found in the gorge, Basile stressed that the levels are only “slightly” above the standard that requires EPA intervention and clean-up.

History of Lead Dumping and Clean-up

The factory manufactured firearms there between 1880 and 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.

Environmental activist Walter Hang said he found “millions of shotgun pellets on the ground,” while examining the site in 2000. He subsequently notified authorities about contamination at the site and in the gorge.

In the early 2000s, the EPA removed about 6,000 tons of lead and arsenic-contaminated soil from the factory site and the base of the gorge cliff, according to the update.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) subsequently assumed responsibility for factory-site clean up operations. The NYSDEC coordinated with the City of Ithaca and state and city contractors, who demolished the factory and removed the contaminated rubble, along with other contaminated materials.

In 2015, the EPA removed 200 tons of contaminated soil from the base of the gorge cliff and the visitor pathway, according to the update.

But in 2018, the NYSDEC announced that more clean-up was necessary due to hazardous levels of lead and other toxins that remained at the factory site. That same year, the EPA took samples from the gorge cliff face.

“The soil samples confirmed that elevated levels of lead and arsenic remained in the cliff face and continue to contaminate the Natural Area below,” the EPA revealed on May 6.

Containment Plans, NYSDEC Slated to Take Over

The barrier will consist of 1,000-pound limestone blocks designed to “allow for erosion control to capture sediments migrating from the cliff face,” according to the update.

“Chain fencing will be installed to provide additional controls to minimize contact with contamination, and signs will be posted to inform the public of the potential hazards associated with lead and arsenic,” the update states.

Earlier this week, EPA officials met with City of Ithaca officials and Common Council members to brief them on the project, Basile said. The briefing took place in the gorge, he explained.

The installation will involve a variety of construction vehicles, to include trucks and front-end loaders, Basile said. EPA personnel will be working in the gorge from about 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, so they’ll be limiting the public’s access to the area during those times, he explained.

“On weekends people will still have access to the majority of the area,” Basil said. “We just ask for the public’s patience during the work, then they’ll have the gorge and natural area back.”

The NYSDEC will eventually assume responsibility for the contaminated cliff face, according to the update. Meanwhile, the EPA is coordinating the project’s efforts with the NYSDEC, the New York State Department of Health, and the City of Ithaca.

Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick and Nels Bohn, director of the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency, couldn’t be reached for comment.