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Group seek cleanup of Ithaca Falls


ITHACA -- An Ithaca company and a citizen's group are calling for the immediate cleanup of a lead-contaminated site on land the City of Ithaca plans to turn into a park.

The city purchased the more than 10-acre piece of Fall Creek gorge, that includes Ithaca Falls, from Cornell University in March for $1. Now, it's faced with the cleanup of the site between Stewart Avenue and Lake Street, where the state Department of Environmental Conservation has documented high levels of lead contamination from the Ithaca Gun Co.'s former factor in 1995.

Since the site -- a popular swimming, fishing and hiking area -- has not yet been cleaned up, the president of Toxics Targeting in Ithaca wrote the DEC asking for a public meeting about the site's risks, restricted public entry to the site and a 60-day deadline for the site's cleanup.

Walter Hang, whose company maps polluted sites around the state, is also calling for the DEC to classify the Ithaca Gun site as a Category One Inactive Hazardous Waste Disposal Site. The classification would mean that the site has the potential to cause "irreversible or irreparable damage to the public health or environment."

"It's just appalling that a pollution hazard of this magnitude has been purposely withheld from public discussion," said Hang.

While cleanup of the site has not begun the city already has approval for money from the state's Brownfield program, which will reimburse up to 75 percent of the city's cleanup costs, said Tom Suozzo, an environmental engineer at the DEC's Kirkwood office.

Ithaca Mayor Alan Cohen said the city already has set aside $100,000 to put toward cleanup costs. He didn't believe that people visiting the site were in any danger.

"The presence of pollutants is always a concern to the City of Ithaca, and we are taking action to deal with it," Cohen said. "I'm concerned that misinformation about toxicity and imminent danger might be being spread that will cause undue alarm in the general public."

Officials at the Ithaca Gun Co., now located in King Ferry, said they don't know anything about the company's practices when it was in Ithaca. The company operated on Lake Street from 1880 to the late 1980s.

"The key issue is, this company is three companies removed from the company that existed (on Lake Street)," said Ken Walker, managing director of Ithaca Gun.

The former Ithaca Gun buildings themselves are now owned by Mark Finkelstein, president of State Street Associates, who also developed the nearby Gun Hill apartments at 210 Lake St.

The DEC first notified Cornell that it found high levels of lead on its property near the former gun factory in 1995 and asked the university to investigate. After conducting its own tests, Cornell said it was likely the victim of contamination from a neighboring property and should not be responsible for cleaning up the site. After years of correspondence and testing, the DEC ultimately agreed.

In its most recent testing in 1998, the DEC found levels of lead high above the states maximum of 400 parts per million -- as high as 215,000 parts per million -- and other contaminants in an area south of the falls.

Lead is a highly toxic element that, at its worst, can cause damage to the brain and nervous system and behavior and learning problems if its dust is ingested or inhaled.

Hang will hold a press conference at 11 a.m. today at Ithaca Falls to talk about the lead contamination at the site.