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Development proposed near gun factory site

A $5.8 million project for townhouses by developer DMG Investments, next to the site of the former Ithaca Gun Company, is currently under review by the Ithaca Planning Board. However, the site’s environmental history has prompted concerns.

Brief history of the site

The Ithaca Gun Company began operations in Ithaca in 1883, producing many types of guns over the company’s lifetime—most famously, the Ithaca Model 37. The company also produced almost 382,000 firearms for the United States military during World War II. Although the company saw much success over its lifetime, after switching owners and facing bankruptcy twice, the site officially closed down in 1986.

The site is also uphill from Ithaca Falls, a common fishing spot for locals with a large waterfall.

Ithaca Falls (source: Joshua Pantano/Ithaca Week)

Environmental concerns

The former Ithaca Gun Company site is contaminated with lead from years of manufacturing and gun test firing. In 2018, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation released a statement announcing that the site “poses a significant threat to public health or the environment.”

Walter Hang, president of environmental advocacy group Toxics Targeting, said despite remediation efforts, contamination still proves to be a problem.

“This area has been remediated over and over and over again,” Hang said. “The problem is that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation didn’t clean up the island or the cliff face. So every time the EPA comes in and removes all that contaminated dirt, more pollution rains down into the trail area.”

Shotgun shell fragment from the Ithaca Gun Company factory found by Walter Hang in Ithaca Falls (source: Joshua Pantano/Ithaca Week)

Site testing found “lead concentrations ranging from 251 parts per million (ppm) to 215,000 ppm,” according to the EPA. Per EPA standards, the allowable quantity of lead in soil for residential use is 400 parts per million.

Several clean-up efforts of the site were made from 2002 to 2016, primarily through excavation and relocation of contaminated soil, the EPA reported. Regardless, lead from the site has swept down into Ithaca Falls, creating a health hazard for park goers.

Sign warning about lead contamination at Ithaca Falls (source: Joshua Pantano/Ithaca Week)

Donna Eschenbrenner, an archivist at the History Center in Tompkins County, said she finds it concerning how businesses have harmed the environment throughout decades.

“It’s frustrating to see just how easily sacrificed our environment has been for so many businesses,” Eschenbrenner said. “That’s a tough thing to watch.”

Are the development plans safe?

DMG Investments plans to build 16 three-story townhouses at 261 Lake Street. The Ithaca Gun Company site, 121-125 Lake Street, is next to the planned development area. 

The development plan states it will likely not disturb soil in the site’s northeast corner that underwent testing for lead contamination. However, Hang said the extent of lead contamination likely goes beyond the site.

“Unfortunately, that oil and chemical contamination is at the site, but it’s not staying at the site. It’s migrating away from the site,” Hang said. “And there has been no comprehensive effort to investigate the problem on a comprehensive basis or to remediate it in strict compliance with all applicable regulatory requirements.”

As of now, the development plans are still under review by the Ithaca Planning Board. A representative from the DEC said via email that efforts are being made to ensure the site will not pose a threat to public health.

The cleanup is designed for redevelopment of the site that is protective of public health and the environment and guided by the proposed future use of the site,” a DEC representative wrote. “Cleanup activities are underway; contaminated soil on the western portion of the site has been removed and construction activities are not prohibited there.”

However, Hang said he has doubts about the efforts to clean up the site once and for all.

“The government is supposed to investigate these concerns and then enforce the law to protect public health,” Hang said. “They’re simply not doing that. It’s irrefutable.”

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