Walter Hang has been calling for a complete remediation of the lead pollution at the Ithaca Falls Natural Area for almost 20 years now. Behind him, people enjoy the falls, stepping into the water. They are seemingly unperturbed by, or unaware of, the lead pollution at the site. (Jimmy Jordan / WRFI)
UPDATE: The EPA has finished constructing a limestone containment barrier at the Ithaca Falls. The park is now open to the public.
Walter Hang: People want to come to this spectacular natural area. And the problem is that up until now, it's essentially a hazardous waste site.
[MUSIC -- Are We Loose Yet, by Blue Dot Sessions]
Jimmy Jordan: This is WRFI Community Radio News. I’m Jimmy Jordan.
And that was the voice of Walter Hang, talking about Ithaca Falls: a spectacular natural area, that’s contaminated with lead.
Efforts to clean up the lead have gone on for almost 20 years, and now the EPA is near completing a limestone wall to contain the pollutants. Once that wall is done, the site will be fully under the care of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.
WRFI Intern Michael Memis has been reporting on the Ithaca Falls remediation efforts, and is here to explain what this latest effort means for one of the waterfalls that makes Ithaca gorgeous.
Michael Memis: Hello, Jimmy.
Jimmy Jordan: Now Michael, can you tell me about the remediation efforts that have happened at Ithaca Falls , and who exactly is Walter Hang. How does he tie into this?
Michael Memis: So, Walter Hang is an environmental activist, an Ithaca area resident, and the founder of Toxics Targeting, a watchdog firm that provides data about toxic contaminations around New York State.
He’s been advocating for more substantial remediation efforts at Ithaca Falls for years, and has been following the work that has been done very closely.
While Ithaca Falls is not on the National Priority list, which would make it a superfund site, it is a state superfund site.
Efforts to remediate the lead pollution have been underway since 2002. Since then over 6,000 tons of lead contaminated soil have been removed from the area.
This containment wall that’s going up could be seen as a capstone for the remediation efforts.
Jimmy Jordan: And how did all this lead get there in the first place?
Michael Memis: The history of this lead contamination is pretty well known in the area. The lead waste has been there since the late 1800s. It’s leftover from the Ithaca Gun Factory, which was located right above Ithaca Falls on a ridge, from the late 19th century to 1987. The lead contamination that’s at Ithaca Falls is concentrated on that ridge, and it falls down into the gorge. It gets caught in the cliff face and lands on the trails. That movement of the lead pollution is what the containment wall is supposed to stop.
So, I actually took a walk with Hang through the Ithaca Falls natural area while the EPA was working on the containment wall. He shared some of the finer details of how Ithaca Gun polluted the area.
Walter Hang: And the reason that this whole area got lead polluted, is number one, they test fired each shotgun. They shot the lead down these steel tubes, then they collected the lead. But then as the company spiraled down into ultimate bankruptcy, they stopped being so careful. So eventually, they just dumped all the lead right off of this porch on one of the buildings and it went down into the area called the island, and then on top of the island there once was a smelting operation...
Jimmy Jordan: How bad is this lead pollution?
Michael Memis: Well the EPA defines lead level in soil as a hazard if it is over 400 parts per million in a quote, “play area.” Soil in some areas around the falls have been found to have well above that number, with lead in some spots being measured with over 10s of thousands parts per million in the soil.
Michael Memis: Even short-term exposure to high levels of lead can lead to symptoms such as kidney and brain damage, and memory loss.
But the exact health effects from the Ithaca Falls contamination haven’t been measured and there aren’t any salient symptoms emerging from the community.
Though, It seems like there would be a high chance of exposure.
Ithaca Falls is down the street from three schools; it’s right in a residential neighborhood; it’s also a tourist attraction. So, overall there’s a lot of foot traffic going through there.
Jimmy Jordan: And so, although there’s no strong signs that this lead is affecting the health of the community, the EPA felt there is reason enough to build a containment wall.
Michael Memis: Right. This sort of effort has been a possibility since 2016 when they found further lead contamination. Hang has commended the EPA for this effort though he thought it should’ve been done 5 years ago.
The EPA is using federal superfund dollars for it’s removal efforts and to build the containment barrier.
Mike Basile is the community involvement coordinator for the EPA. He believes this wall will be a more permanent solution than the previous one. If there is any more work to be done, it will be the Department of Environmental Conservation in charge rather than the EPA.
Now, Basile says this transition is going smoothly.
Mike Basile: We have an agreement with the DEC, that this is the work that EPA will complete. And when we're done, they will assume any other work that may have to be accomplished in the future.
Michael Memis: But it’s hard to overstate just how strongly Hang disagrees with this course of action.
Walter Hang: That makes me want to cry. It's just pathetic. I mean, I'm gonna do everything I can to make sure that doesn't happen. So, Mike is a great guy, he's worked so hard, again, for 30 years plus, and to give it to the state of New York, that caused the problem, that knew about the problem and never cleaned it up, that turned a blind eye, turned a deaf ear...
Jimmy Jordan: It sounds like Hang has a very contentious relationship with the DEC.
Michael Memis: Yes. Hang has been very critical of inaction at the state level to get this issue fixed.
The DEC has done a small portion of the work in the area, but they did request that the EPA lead the cleanup efforts from the very beginning. The DEC has helped monitor the site. They’ve also sampled the soil in the area.
But, the DEC had called the cleanup complete in 2017. Yet, as we can see by the work being done now, it wasn’t. And it doesn’t sound like the DEC will be doing any major cleanups of the area in the future like the one the EPA is done with the wall.
Hang has been critical of local officials as well. He’s given a bad mark to all three Mayoral administrations that have been around while this issue was known.
He’s particularly critical of past mayor, Alan Cohen, for not supporting the effort early on to get Ithaca Falls on the National Priority List. Cohen was mayor when Ithaca acquired the Ithaca Falls site from Cornell.
The lead contamination was known about when the City purchased the property, and began it’s plans to turn it into a park.
And at the time, Cohen said he didn’t think visitors to Ithaca Falls were in danger. In July of 2000, Cohen is quoted in the Ithaca Journal saying that he’s concerned that misinformation about the site's toxicity might be spreading and causing undue alarm in the general public.
To current Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick’s credit, he says that the city supports a comprehensive cleanup and wrote the EPA to request reconsideration of the area as a superfund site.
However, Myrick has refuted claims made by Hang, and has historically deferred to the judgement of the EPA.
Jimmy Jordan: Like what sort of claims?
Michael Memis: Well, Hang thinks this site is not suitable for people to frequent. There are signs in the natural area warning people about the lead on the site, but the City has no plans to prevent people from enjoying the falls.
Hang is going to keep pushing for the site to be completely cleaned of lead. So his goal is to get the site on the National Priority List by testing the water at Bolton Point Public Water System for lead. Cayuga Lake is a source of drinking water for over 40,000 people throughout multiple counties. If he can get it on the National Priority list, then the EPA would have to get involved with the site again.
Jimmy Jordan: Ok. So I can imagine how the lead would get into Cayuga Lake, but what did Hang tell you. I mean, he sounds like he’s convinced there’s lead entering the water.
Michael Memis: Precipitous weather and wind have led sediments at the top of the cliff to fall to the bottom. Some of that was noticeable while I was there due to rain the previous day. Flooding causes those sediments to get into the water.
Walter Hang: And it got washed away due to water erosion, the wind blew it off the edge of the cliff, the cliff is right next to the site. And that's how the gorge trail area got polluted. And then the gorge trail gets washed by flooding. And that sends it to Cayuga Lake, which is the source of drinking water for 40,000 people...
Michael Memis: However, the 2021 Drinking Water Quality Report from Bolton Point shows no violations for state standards in lead levels. If it doesn’t go on the National Priority List it is unclear if there will be future cleanup efforts at Ithaca Falls.
Now, Hang acknowledges that the barrier going up is a huge step to containing the lead contamination.
Walter Hang: So we know that more pollution is coming down. But now we have a barrier. So as long as you don't get this dirt on your hands, in your mouth, in your eyes, in your nose, on your sandwich, in your car, in your home, you're okay.
Michael Memis: I mean, Hang has been calling for this wall to be put up for years. He thinks it’s important — an important step. But again, there’s really no way he’s going to stop pushing for further remediation at Ithaca Falls.
Walter Hang: I want the entire Ithaca Gun Ithaca Falls site cleaned up top to bottom once and for all, on a comprehensive basis, in strict compliance with all applicable regulatory requirements...And I want everyone to walk wherever they want without having to worry about the lead pollution, and when the EPA...
Jimmy Jordan: Right, but the lead levels that Bolton Point has reported in the water it draws from Cayuga Lake don’t seem likely to motivate any further clean up.
It seems unlikely Hang is going to be able to get the Ithaca Falls site onto the National Priority list this way.
Michael Memis: That’s the way it seems. The only other motivation for removing the lead contaminated soil at the site is actually coming from a housing project.
Jimmy Jordan: Oh. Ok?
Michael Memis: Yeah. The former Ithaca Gun Factory is slated for a potential development project that was proposed in 2018. Before anything can happen though, there needs to be a massive amount of soil moved off the site.
But that’s all happening more in the realm of developers and the private sector. The DEC is providing guidance and a plan to developers.
[MUSIC -- Are We Loose Yet, by Blue Dot Sessions]
Michael Memis: But as far as Government led clean up efforts go, this containment wall may be the largest effort we’ll see.
If the path to a complete removal of lead at Ithaca Falls is getting the site onto the national priority list, I think we’re speaking in terms of a longshot.
Jimmy Jordan: But that won’t stop Hang.
Michael Memis: No. Likely not.
Jimmy Jordan: Thank you, Michael. Nice talking to you.
Michael Memis: My pleasure.
Jimmy Jordan: You’re listening to WRFI Community Radio News.
In an email, we asked the DEC what might warrant further efforts to remediate the lead at the Ithaca Falls site, but they did not immediately respond to the request for comment.
The story you just listened to was reported by WRFI Intern Michael Memis, edited and produced by, myself, Jimmy Jordan.
The music you heard in this story is Are We Loose Yet, by Blue Dot Sessions.
You can listen to this–and all of WRFI's News content– wherever you get your podcasts, and on WRFI’s website, at wrfi.org/news.
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I’m Jimmy Jordan. Thank you for listening.