The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is currently investigating oil found in Fall Creek, which likely originated at Cornell’s Arts and Sciences Alumni Building on 726 University Avenue.
DEC officials have told multiple media outlets that although the cause and source of contamination remains uncertain, the creek is safe.
An oil tank was removed from the location in 1995, and emergency response contractors vacuumed oil from 726 University Ave. and fenced it off on March 12. However, on April 11, a fisherman reported additional oil contamination at Fall Creek, which the DEC said may be related to the incident in March.
Cornell officials, such as Steve Beyers, manager of the Engineering Services Group in the Cornell Office of Environmental Compliance and Sustainability, have said that the situation is “under control” and that the environmental effects of the contamination will be limited. However, Walter Hang, president of Toxics Targeting, a local environmental advocacy firm, called the incident a “fiasco” and said the consequences of the leak would be dire.
“In some ways, it probably doesn’t really have any effect,” Beyers said.
After the DEC alerted Beyers to the Fall Creek contamination, Beyers called response contractors to decontaminate the creek by pumping groundwater from a pipe left in the original excavation.
“When they were done, I went down to the creek, and there was no longer a visible sheen,” Beyers said. “I also went down on Saturday, Sunday and early this morning — no sheen during any of these visits,” he said, adding that response contractors conducted additional pumping at the site Monday morning.
Hang, however, said that while the oil was likely gone because of heavy rainfall in the past week, he remained concerned about its lasting impact on the environment. He said that since Fall Creek discharges into Cayuga Lake, a source of drinking water for approximately 30,000 people and an impaired water body, its preservation is critical. He added that Fall Creek is a renowned trout habitat and that an oil spill may threaten its wildlife.
“If you have oil and you dump it on the sidewalk, it’s going to be there for months, and if it rains and washes off to the streets, it goes into storm drains and wherever the drain discharges,” Hang said. “Oil is actually poisonous, so if you are a small fish and you happen to swim through the oil, you can actually absorb enough that death might ensue."
When asked about the environmental consequences of the Fall Creek contamination, Beyers said that he does not think there was a significant quantity of oil that spilled into the creek. Additionally, Beyers said that photographs taken of the scene were “misleading.”
“Some [oil] got to the water but when the water is really moving, oil breaks down biologically,” Beyers said. “Oil forms itself into a very thin protective layer, so a little bit goes a long way ... When somebody has a leak in their car and it looks awful in the driveway, it’s the same way with water.”
Hang criticized Cornell for failing to respond to the original 726 University Avenue contamination sooner, which, he said, could have gone unnoticed for decades.
“That contamination could have been in the ground since [Cornell University] removed the tank circa 1995, if not earlier,” Hang said. “It’s very common that when [response contractors] go to a site and start excavating, they excavate hundreds of tons of polluted dirt. The amount of dirt they have to excavate could actually threaten the integrity of the foundation of the building.”
Additionally, Hang alleges the absorbant booms placed in Fall Creek to control the contamination were placed before Cornell reported the oil sheen to the DEC. This would mean Cornell knew about the oil sheen but did not report it to the DEC, Hang said.
In an email written to Hang, the fisherman who reported the sheen wrote, “Those booms were in place on Monday, April 4. I am absolutely certain of that ... I can attest to that fact.”
Hang also criticized the DEC for not acting immediately to safeguard Cayuga Lake, saying the agency “should have required [Cornell University] to take comprehensive action to curtail the discharge.”
“I just think that it’s a deplorable situation that the problem was known for maybe more than a month before it was reported by a citizen,” Hang said.
“Cornell has been in a 13-year fight about its role in polluting Southern Cayuga Lake, so they knew full well that the water quality is impaired, they understand what the law requires and it’s just shocking that this fiasco occurred,” Hang said.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that 30,000 residents receive their drinking water from Fall Creek. In fact, Fall Creek discharges into Cayuga Lake, which is the source of drinking water for 30,000 people.