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River Valley schools
Army to answer claim for damages

It has until the end of the month to say whether it will pay to replace contaminated schools.

Wednesday, February 9, 2000

BY Jill Riepenhoff
Dispatch Staff Reporter

The U.S. Army has until the end of the month to explain why it should or shouldn't pay $25 million to River Valley schools for new buildings and lost income.

Without new schools in a new location, River Valley officials fear enrollment will continue to decline as the district's connection to cancer and toxic waste overshadows its achievements in academics.

The district claims as much as $620,000 in revenue was lost in the past two years because as many as 100 students transferred to other schools, leaving the district with about 800 students at the middle and high schools on Rt. 98 east of Marion, 40 miles north of Columbus.

Although repairing a damaged reputation is difficult to quantify, district officials estimate that building a new middle and high school would provide assurances for a safe learning environment that the current campus can't.

They say such construction would cost $24 million.

The claim is the first legal action in the three-year environmental investigation of complaints that the Army dumped cancer-causing chemicals on the 78-acre campus in eastern Marion County.

Superintendent Tom Shade said the district had no choice but to take legal action.

"At day's end, we have to have unrestricted access to our campus,'' Shade said. "Why should we ask our voters to incur the cost of $24 million when we weren't to blame? We're not saying the Army did what they did intentionally.''

The district filed the claim for damages in August with the Army Claims Service at Fort Mead, Md. The Army was given six months to respond. If it denies wrongdoing, River Valley may file a federal lawsuit against the military.

The schools were built on a portion of the former 640-acre Marion Engineering Depot, the largest military operation of its kind between 1942 and 1961. Heavy equipment and trucks were cleaned and refurbished at the depot.

River Valley officials bought the land in the early 1960s unaware that the grounds were used to dump, burn and bury toxic chemicals.

An investigation was launched in 1997 after state health officials confirmed that an unusually high number of River Valley graduates developed leukemia. Investigators have determined that at least half of the campus is contaminated.

"The chemicals . . . are hotter than a pistol,'' Gerald Meyers of Metcalf & Eddy, the school's environmental consultant, told parents at a recent community meeting.

The Army Corps of Engineers, charged with investigating and cleaning up toxic waste at former military sites, has said the military is responsible for contaminating much of the River Valley campus.

However, the corps said it will not build River Valley new schools. The law gives the corps the authority only to clean, not build, investigators have said.

The district seeks $24 million to buy land and to build a new middle and high school, according to the claim. It also seeks reimbursement of the legal and environmental consulting fees.

School officials wrote in the claim that they have spent at least $250,000 for an independent evaluation of the environmental data, which at times has been interpreted differently by the corps, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and the school's team.

School officials say concern about contamination resulted in the district's loss of students and state aid, which is based on enrollment, according to the claim.

The loss of students to other districts is a blow because River Valley rates highest among the five Marion County districts by Ohio Department of Education's academic standards.

In its Report Card 2000, the state said River Valley continues academic improvement, meeting 16 of 27 criteria, more than any other district in the county.

Yet its reputation is tarnished.

"The contamination has also resulted in a total devaluation of the property and has effectively rendered the property unsuitable for use as a school campus,'' school officials wrote in the claim. "River Valley Local School District will have to permanently relocate the students and school facilities.''

The school's environmental team estimates that the Army would have to spend $60 million to clean up the campus to residential, or near pristine, conditions if the schools are to stay open.

School officials, parents and community leaders continue to say that relocation is the cheapest solution and the only one that will make them feel comfortable about the safety of children.

"Even if this school weren't here, there would have to be some type of investigation and remediation action, even if this were an empty field,'' Meyers said. "On a daily basis, we're confident it's safe for kids to be here. But it's not the best solution over the life of this school district.''


Copyright © 2000, The Columbus Dispatch