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Chain Works Faces Steep Standards for Residential Use


Former Emerson Power Transmissions Factory.

As the sports broadcasters say, the Emerson Chain Works redevelopment is “currently under review.”

At a professional sporting event one person in a striped shirt might make the final call, when it comes to large development projects anyone with something to say about plans for the “live, work, play” community on South Hill has their chance to speak up regarding environmental issues until May 10. The project, which was made public in summer 2014, is taking questions and comments as part of its “generic environmental impact statement” phase; all “substantive” questions will receive an answer in the final GEIS, as this particular document is known.

On March 29, a public hearing was held at Cinemapolis to gather feedback. An open comment period beginning at 4 p.m. brought out many local officials, but no comments from the general public, before project planners took the stage. This reporter had to be elsewhere, but saw later that Walter Hang had garnered headlines in another outlet by saying there was “mindboggling contamination” at the old Morse Chain factory.

Hang, the principal of environmental consulting firm Toxics Targeting, has long advocated for more cleanup at the Emerson site.

“Nothing was nailed down about how these pollution problems are going to be resolved,” Hang said later in the week about the draft impact statement. “That's how come at the hearing I told all the local officials they should not allow any progress to be made on this project until there is a meaningful comprehensive cleanup adopted.”

Right now, officials have leverage, Hang said, because Unchained Properties, the site's developer, needs rezoning in both the city and town of Ithaca to redevelop nearly 900,000 square feet of factory and build new housing on the 95-acre tract.

The site has a long recorded history of pollution, dating back to oil and solvents draining into storm sewers and then the Inlet in the mid-60s. The environmental testing history on the site dates back to 1987, with TCE (trichloroethylene), a volatile organic compound used for degreasing equipment, the biggest toxic offender. New York's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) issued a record of decision (ROD) in 1994 that classified the Chain Works as a class 4 site, meaning, in short, that Emerson should continue to monitor and use mitigation measures for groundwater and soil contamination.

In 2004 complaints from residents at the bottom of South Hill led Hang to look at the data for groundwater, where he found, he said, the “record of decision had never been fully implemented.”

State action at that time led to subslab ventilation systems installed in homes around the Chain Works, and in February 2005 the DEC changed the property to a class 2 site, meaning “action required.”

"The state has been unwilling to say, 'You've got X number of days and, if you don't do it our way by then, forget it, we're going to do it or get the EPA,'” Hang told a 2005 hearing, held in Ithaca, of the state Assembly's environmental conservation committee, according to the Ithaca Journal.

“There's been 12 years of zero progress,” Hang said this week. “I don't have anything against development. I'm for cleanup … I think this is really the beginning of the discussion.”

Hang did concede that about 200 tons of soil under a leaky transformer pad had been removed from the site, but still sees “no plan” to clean up the site to get it in “strict compliance” with regulations. Alderperson Cynthia Brock (D-1st) and Town of Ithaca planning committee chair Rich DePaolo also asked extend the comment period last week, citing the impact statement's lack of detail about clean-up procedures.

That lack of detail is largely because the GEIS process is intended more to note issues and allow for comment on a local level; the DEC issues its own marching orders, said James Gensel, principal at Fagan Engineers, which is contracted for site work by David Lubin's Unchained Properties.

“We're going to make sure this thing is documented to the nth degree, because once the property changes hands, [cleanup] is on Unchained Properties,” Gensel said. “The dots on the map of all the testing looks like Swiss cheese. This site has been poked and prodded quite a bit.”

That prodding included a two-phase study by LaBella Associates commissioned by Unchained Properties in 2013 and 2014, available at the Tompkins County Public Library—along with most of the other reports on the Chain Works site.
Right now, mitigation is happening to the industrial standard, Gensel said. The residential standard is more stringent, and whatever DEC says needs to happen for people to live on the site would take place after Unchained Properties takes possession of the property, which is still owned by Emerson.

“Emerson isn't going to go to a residential standard if they're not going to sell the property,” Gensel said. He's hoping that Emerson's engineers make all of their submissions to the DEC by the end of this year.

Vicki Taylor Brous, who's working on outreach for the Chain Works project, said that comments made about the impossibility of getting through the impact statement in the time granted were misleading. The city's planning and development board and town board have had access to the document since January, Brous said, and the statement itself is about 350 pages, not the 80,000 pages that was claimed. Many of those materials have been “available for years.”

Unchained Properties has “spent in excess of $2 million on this project to date,” Brous said. “The idea that nothing has been done to clean it up or to investigate it is difficult to hear.”

“We've been investing in the latest ideas about how to build a community and fill a hole in Ithaca,” said David Lubin, the project developer. “Usually these things cause quite a bit of controversy in Ithaca, and I’m pleased to say ours really hasn't, from Ithaca as a whole. Only a couple individuals who always seem to be there.”