The BOOKPRESS May 2000

Toxic Dreams

Cara Ben-Yaacov


An open landfill, an uncapped, uncleaned 65-acre open dump exists within the city of Ithaca. Hundreds of residents live directly on top of the northern portion of this dump in Nates Floral Estates mobile home park, owned by local physician Reuben Weiner. The site is located in a flood plain and is bordered by two bodies of water that drain directly into Cayuga Lake. Mayor Alan Cohen knows this, the Tompkins County Health Department knows this, and New York State and federal environmental protection agencies know this. But in all likelihood, the reason Ithacans know the dumpís name, Southwest Park, is because our city government is planning on redeveloping the area in hopes of boosting the local economy.

Available at the Tompkins County Public Library is a copy of a memo that was sent to John Anderson of the Tompkins County Health Department from Charles Chernoff of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation back in July of 1987. Chernoff states in his memo that surface studies had been conducted, and that the site "contains indications of contamination from hydrocarbons as well as metals." Chernoff goes on to say that "The sediment that was under the water flowing from the fill shows benzene above detection limits, ethylbenzene, dichlorobenzene and xylene. This indicates, that something is coming out of the landfill."

Benzene, perhaps the most toxic chemical found at the site, is a known human carcinogen even at low levels of exposure. Ethylbenzene can cause irritation to eyes and skin, problems in the central nervous system, and in cases of greater exposure, narcosis and coma. Dichlorobenzene can cause skin blistering, damage to the eyes, nausea, vomiting, weight loss, and damage to the liver and kidneys.

Chernoff recommended a thorough investigation, including the drilling of wells to determine accurate levels of contaminants. Anderson replied from the Tompkins County Department of Health sixteen days later, informing Chernoff that "We have no budget item or specifications prepared for test wells." Expansion of Nates Floral Estates was discouraged, but no extensive notification of residents took place and no study was done on the health effects these toxins may have had on the families who lived there.

In September of 1986, almost a year before the Chernoff/Anderson exchange, Weiner had received letters from both the Tompkins County Department of Health and the City of Ithaca Engineering and Utilities Division, informing him of the possible dangers to residents on his property.

In a September 9th memo, plumbing inspector Ivan Burris, who was responding to a complaint of a leak in the water system at Nates, told Weiner "The water system is installed in the soil of a former landfill and could contain many hazardous materials." He went on to say that if a leak in the system at Nates were to coincide with a break in the city system "hazardous materials could be drawn into the mains and consequently cause a health hazard to the complete City Water System. I believe that with your knowledge as a physician," Burris wrote, "you can see the probable health problems that could occur from such a cross connection of waste waters with the public water system."

Later that month, Anderson expressed his concerns about the water supply at Nates Floral Estates in a memo to Weiner which said in part: "The spectre of contaminated ground water entering the mobile home parkís water lines concerns the Health Department." Also, "The hazards of materials in the ground beneath the park are unknown but can be assumed to be severe."

It is clear that both Weiner and the City of Ithaca had explicit knowledge of the dangers of the landfill. Yet to this date there has been no evidence of resident notification or environmental cleanup.

Residents at Nates appear reluctant to talk with the press. Robert Small, who lives less than two hundred yards from several exposed drums and half-buried scrap metal, told me that he didnít want to talk about the site. "I donít want to get involved with anything," he said.

Michael Black, a resident of Nates for 40 years, says that no one from the city or from Nates notified him that he was living on a landfill, but that he knew himself before he moved there. "I think people know what this was," he says, "especially older people. I donít know if people are being told by the office when they move in. Donít you think itís a little late now to let people know?" he asks.

I went to the Nates Floral Estates office to ask employee and emergency contact Kevin Uhr if residents were being notified of potential health risks. He became highly agitated, refused to speak to me, told me to leave, threatened to have me arrested and then called (or pretended to call) the police.

"We are not allowed to give out any information to anyone," Uhr said, shutting himself into an inner office in the rental information building. "You have to talk to the owners."

Having failed to contact Reuben Weiner through Nates Floral Estates, I tried to reach him at his home. I even drove out to Family Fun, the miniature golf range he owns, looking for him in the ball and club rental kiosk that is decorated with posters of Elvis and figures of the seven dwarves, but I was unable to obtain denial or confirmation from Weiner or his representatives regarding their resident notification policy at Nates.

In June of 1999 the City of Ithaca contracted with a Rochester firm, Clark Patterson Associates, to conduct an environmental impact study of the Southwest Park site. Though the study did reveal the existence of 37 highly toxic chemicals, pollutants and heavy metals in its limited surface testing alone, no comprehensive investigation, extensive well drilling, or study of the potential impact the pollutants would have on the Inlet and Cayuga Lake were undertaken.

When Walter Hang, president of the Ithaca firm, Toxics Targeting, and co-author of the New York State Community Right to Know Executive Order, (which requires disclosure to the stateís Department of Environmental Conservation of past municipal, industrial and commercial dumping practices) read Clark Pattersonís Southwest Draft Environmental Impact Statement, he was "appalled at how bad it was. It didnít follow the appropriate baseline protocol, it reached completely ludicrous conclusions. It said, for example, that because the site wasnít capped that all of the contamination in the dump would have already drained out into the lake and therefore there was no point in checking out the problems of the landfill."

Hang, whose research has brought his name to the front page of the New York Times, as well as exposés on "60 Minutes," has more than twenty-years experience working with dump-site identification. He sits cross-legged in his bright high-windowed office in the DeWitt Mall, surrounded by well-ordered stacks of documents and environmental reports. Large foam-mounted maps of Cayuga Lake and the city lean against the wall.

Hangís interest in bringing attention to environmental concerns at Southwest Park is independent of his position at Toxics Targeting.

"I started doing this because I'm a sailor and I became very concerned about water quality in the lake," he says. The information he has amassed is part of a watershed study involving hundreds of hours of investigation of pollution sources impacting Cayuga Lake.

Looking over his shoulder at a map of the site, I ask if all the contamination actually could have drained out of the Southwest Park landfill, as the city-commissioned report states.

"No," he says. "Their own data showed that there were about three dozen toxic chemicals that were identified on, in, under or immediately adjacent to the dump. Thereís no question that a lot of contamination has leaked out of the landfill, but they should never have concluded that all of the contamination had leaked out and that therefore the site didnít pose a hazard anymore. There are always residual amounts because many of the toxic chemicals found in landfills, including this one, are insoluble in water, they stick to dirt and they are not going anywhere. They will be there until the end of time."

The toxins identified at the site include heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, chromium and mercury, which are, according to Hang, "highly toxic and able migrate long distances attached to dust particles." The site also contains polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, including benzo(a)pyrene and benzo(a)anthracene, which can cause long-term health problems, such as cell mutagens and cancer, at very low levels of exposure.

"There has been no health survey, no epidemological assessment," Hang says. "The really bothering thing is that, unfortunately, even though there were concerns about expanding the trailer park thatís on the northern portion of the landfill, the authorities at both the state level and the local county level didnít do anything to assess the health of the people who were already living on the landfill."

"A landfill," says Hang, "is really like a mammoth chemical reaction thatís taking place. The volume of the gas thatís been produced by the landfill is extraordinarily large. Most big landfills have gas retrieval systems that suck off the gas and then sell it to a utility." These kinds of gas retrieval systems are designed to keep landfills from releasing explosive gas.

The Southwest Park site has no permanent cap, liner, leachate controls or methane gas recovery systems. A cap, which is an impermeable layer of plastic or clay, would prevent water from percolating through the waste and then seeping out the sides or bottom of the site.

"The problem with the cityís investigation is that it was incomplete," says Hang. "They went around and only collected dirt. You need to drill, drill, drill. The bottom line is that this site has to be the subject of a very intensive investigation. They drilled almost no wells. And as a result they have insufficient data, and thatís why they canít conclude whatís going on at the site."

Mayor Alan Cohen considers the Clark Patterson report to be sufficient. "Both the county and the state have been aware of this situation for quite some time. I rely on their expertise in what needs to be done, barring any changes to the site."

Cohen says he has done his homework on the proposed development area. "Testing was done," he says. "We were able to determine that nothing is leaking from the site. Nothing has to be contained. I canít answer for the past, but based on all the studies that have been done now, there are no leaks."

"That is completely untrue," says Walter Hang. "The site is not designed, constructed or maintained to hold its contents securely." The dump is bordered by the Cayuga Inlet Flood Control Channel as well as a tributary which connects with Six Mile Creek. Hang points to the fact that nothing was ever done to cap the site. "This landfill has been leaking each and every day" Hang says. "All of this pollution is just going right into the lake. There is no question that this is all in the drainage basin. We identified this for the state and Feds last August and they havenít done anything."

So how is it that a place that poses serious health hazards to the community has been able to stand untouched for so long?

"This landfill is not identified as a landfill by any of the state or federal health or environmental authorities who are in charge of dealing with toxic hazards" Hang says. "So this landfill, in effect, just doesnít show up on the radar scope."

Just how legal is that?

"There were two major requirements to identify landfills," Hang explains. "The first one was called a 103-C of the original federal Superfund, and this was a disclosure requirement. It was a federal government regulation that said if you generate hazardous waste you have to tell the public where you put it and if you donít do that you may be liable for up to $25,000 in fines a day. The second requirement is Community Right to Know Executive Order, which mandates disclosure by industries and municipalities for a thirty-year period between 1953 and 1983. Community Right to Know was then added to the State Inactive Hazardous Waste Disposal Site Registry.

This site should have been identified," says Hang. But the dump was also not included in a survey of former garbage dumps conducted by the New York Legislative Commission on Solid Waste Management. "Anyone who dumped anything in that landfill should have told the state and the Feds that they did it. No one did, even though the City of Ithaca owned it at one point. At the time, the failure to disclose past dumping practices could have resulted in major fines. Now, unless the site gets added to the federal Superfund, from the regulatory perspective of state and federal authorities itís just a piece of land. They can build anything they want on it."

"There are brownfields all around this nation and world," says Alan Cohen. "Just because a brownfield is contaminated doesnít mean it canít be developed. There is a public benefit because there is environmental remediation that takes place due to development." Cohen uses an example of one developer who was considering the site and proposed to dig out the waste.

"You canít dig out a 65-acre landfill," says Hang. "The northern quarter of this one has a residential community on top of it. Big old landfills get closed and capped where they are located." Before anything is undertaken at the site, Hang says, the responsible party has to investigate and remediate. "The investigation the DEC recommended 12 years ago should be done. They need to follow through."

This is why Hang is petitioning the state and the federal government to include the site in the Superfund as well as the New York Hazardous Substance Waste Disposal Site Registry.

Dooley Kiefer, a member of the Tompkins County Board of Representatives and head of the conservation committee of the League of Women Voters, supports Hangís efforts to obtain remediation for the Southwest Park site. "We strongly support the idea that this site should be looked into and that remediation should take place sooner rather than later," she says. "We share his concerns, and the desire for action being taken by the appropriate agencies."

Last summer Hang and his colleagues reported illegally dumped fifty-five gallon barrels, and what appeared to be an illegal industrial discharge on the site. Both the barrels and the discharge are still there. Hang talks about widespread failure to clean up toxics at the state level, despite the fact that there is no shortage of money for investigation and cleanup. Right now Reuben Weiner, as owner of Nateís Floral Estates, is responsible for undertaking an investigation. If he is unable or unwilling to pay for one, the State and Federal DEC and EPA could do the work and sue for the cost of recovery. The City of Ithaca, and anyone who has owned and operated a dump on the site is potentially liable.

"Itís really rare that you have a site like this," says Hang. "Iíve never heard of one like this anywhere else in the State of New York, where people are living on a site thatís posing a threat to the source of drinking water for tens of thousands of people."

So far the Health Department, the Department of Environmental Conservation, and the Environmental Protection Agency have been unresponsive to concerns about the cleanup they recommended 12 years ago.

"Thereís no question itís a threat," Hang says. "They have to cap it, make sure it doesnít leak, make sure the people who are living there are fully protected from fugitive emissions. If the people have been harmed, then they have to be compensated. If they havenít been hurt yet, they have to be monitored because they may have been exposed. Itís pretty hard to envision that people living there for extended periods of time havenít been exposed. We really need a lot of investigatory work and cleanup undertaken without further delay if weíre going to protect Cayuga Lake as well as the people who might live on or near these contaminated areas."

"We are an aware community," says Mayor Cohen. "We look at these issues and take the appropriate steps necessary."

And what is the environmental impact of development?

"The State and the DECís determination of what should be done about any environmental concerns is predicated on what the future use of the site is going to be," says Mayor Alan Cohen.

"Under current law that canít happen," says Dan McLean, spokesman for Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, chairman of the New York State Assemblyís Environmental Conservation Committee. Under current law the Superfund works well and has strict cleanup requirements," says McLean.

Assemblyman Brodsky confirms this, saying, "Use-based standards are not part of the law. But the Governor is trying to make it part of the law and heís wrong. Heís endangering people."

"If the city goes forward to try to redevelop the site as theyíve proposed," says Walter Hang, "then all that digging and excavating could release a massive amount of pollution. They may pave over the site, but the contamination can still leak out."

Cara Ben-Yaacov is a writer who lives in Ithaca. She studied documentary and media studies at the University of Buffalo.

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