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River Valley investigation costs district, government $3 million

Monday, March 6, 2000

By Tom Sheehan
Dispatch Staff Reporter

MARION, Ohio -- The cold, hard figures are easy to calculate.

The human toll is not.

At least that's how Superintendent Tom Shade of River Valley Schools views the effort to quantify more than two years of investigation into environmental contamination.

More than $3 million has been spent by the school district and various governmental agencies on the investigation at River Valley High School and its adjacent middle school near Marion.

The Army Corps of Engineers has said that cleaning up the most contaminated areas could cost between $2 million and $20 million.

The district's consultant estimated that a complete cleanup of the school site would cost between $50 million and $60 million. School officials estimate that building new schools at another site would cost about $24 million.

So far, the district has spent $388,550: $151,650 to environmental consultant Metcalf and Eddy of Columbus and $236,900 in legal fees. Most of that has been covered by a special $350,000 grant provided by the state.

But neither the countless hours spent by administrators, teachers, community members and others dealing with this issue nor the impact on the community can be broken down into dollars and cents, Shade said.

"Our main mission is teaching and learning,'' he said. "Anything that takes away from that mission is challenging.''

One such challenge is dealing with the damage to the district's image and reputation. Enrollment has dropped by more than 100 students in the past two years, leaving about 800 students at the high school and middle school.

Shade and other school officials say either the 78-acre school site, built on grounds where toxic materials were dumped, must be returned to near pristine condition or new schools must be built at another location.

"We're not going to let this keep us frozen in time and space,'' he said. "This is a district whose future, we think, is bright.''

Shade noted a $18.9 million bond issue on Tuesday's ballot to build two elementary schools. Passage will say a lot about public confidence in the district, he said.

The investigation of the high- and middle-school site began after community members raised questions in 1997 about a high rate of leukemia among graduates of the high school.

The corps was brought in as the lead investigative agency because it has jurisdiction over former Army sites.

The corps has spent about $2.2 million investigating River Valley, spokeswoman Barbara Kehoe said. An additional $300,000 has been spent on a related investigation on a 127-acre Army Reserve site next to the two schools.

The schools and Reserve sites sit on the grounds of the old Marion Engineering Depot, a 640-acre complex used between World War II and the early 1960s for equipment repair and storage. A wide variety of chemical waste has been found there.

A lot of the money spent by the corps has gone to its environmental contractor, Montgomery Watson in Colorado. Costs include $475,000 for arsenic removal, $336,000 for a radiation survey and $138,000 for trench work to do environmental sampling.

"We have done quite an extensive investigation on the entire (school) property,'' Kehoe said. "We'll be back out in the field in the spring and summer.''

Although the investigation has centered on a 20-acre section thought to be the most contaminated, Kehoe said, the remaining 58 acres have been checked, too.

"We're just not finding the risk out there,'' she said. "We'll look at the results with the Ohio EPA to see what extent we need to move forward'' on the rest of the site.

The state Environmental Protection Agency has spent $442,045 on River Valley, spokeswoman Heidi Griesmer said. That money comes from a federal grant and state money. Most of the spending was for consultant and testing fees and for employees' salaries.

The Ohio Department of Health, the staff members of which have helped with the investigation in various ways, said it can't quantify the amount it spent on salaries. One direct department cost was $14,300 for a consultant to review a radiation survey of the school site.

The Marion County Health Department has spent an estimated $100,000, mostly on staff costs, officials said.

A feasibility study to propose what should be done about the contamination will help answer some questions about future costs. The corps hopes to release the study by the end of the month.


Copyright © 2000, The Columbus Dispatch