published October 20, 2000
Records: EPA stayed
mum on contamination
school grounds’ past angers Marion residents
Valley High School in Marion, O., opened in 1962 near land
that was once used to bury military waste. BLADE PHOTO BY
MARION, O. - The Ohio Environmental Protection
Agency has known that contaminated waste was being dumped next door
to the main River Valley school district campus here since at least
1978, records show.
Yet Ohio EPA officials did not inform the
public about it in 1997, when the state health department announced
an unusually high leukemia rate in the Marion area. Even after the
River Valley school district gained national attention that year and
became the focus of the largest environmental investigation in Ohio
history, nothing was disclosed.
Now, in light of a paper
trail uncovered by angry residents, Ohio EPA officials admit they
knew about the problem all along but did not consider it
Ohio EPA Director Chris Jones said information
about industrial practices that occurred after the school campus
opened in 1962 was not brought up because the agency does not
believe there is a direct correlation between the contamination
there and leukemia.
Trichloroethylene, or TCE, a solvent that
binds to soil, has been found on school grounds, as has
cancer-causing benzo(a)pyrene. Scientists disagree over whether
those two contaminants cause leukemia. Benzene, known to cause
leukemia, has been found only in trace amounts.
near this city 100 miles southeast of Toledo are crying
Mike Griffith, a geologist who removed his son from the
River Valley school district about a year into the investigation,
said he believes that the records are the latest evidence that the
Ohio EPA has withheld information.
He contends the Ohio EPA
made a "concerted effort" to keep 1978 correspondence about a nearby
company called Plant City Steel out of the River Valley
investigation, as well as a 1988 environmental audit of the
company’s site near the school campus. He said he is suspicious
about storage issues that were never brought up about Gettman
Brothers, a nearby company affiliated with the steel fabricator.
Gettman’s problems led to state enforcement action in the early
The 1978 correspondence about Plant City Steel
includes letters exchanged that summer between the company’s
attorney, the Marion County Department of Health, and the Ohio EPA’s
district office in Bowling Green.
The letters inform the
company it must stop using a dump just south of a fence that
separates the school campus to the north and a closed Army Reserve
training site to the south.
A 1953 aerial photograph obtained
by Concerned River Valley Families, a group of citizen activists who
demanded action about leukemia cases in the Marion area, shows much
of the land in question at State Rts. 309 and 98 had been a World
War II military dump. The intersection is two miles east of
Two-thirds of that 1953 dump is River Valley school
property. The other third is on the Army Reserve training site,
which has been closed since early 1999 because of health risks
reservists could face by digging and crawling in the dirt.
1988 environmental audit performed at the Plant City Steel property
raised a number of issues. Among them were questions about possible
radiation at a building that might have been used as part of the
Manhattan Project, the government’s code name for the first atomic
bomb. Other concerns were raised about how the steel company dumped
paints, solvents, oily substances, and other materials.
Hill, Plant City Steel manager when it closed in 1986, said the
steel plant was about a half-mile away from the dump, which was used
to dispose of waste or to burn the plant’s trash. He said he does
not recall anything more hazardous than paint being disposed of
"It’s obvious there was some dumping going on by a
local company," Jeff Steers, an Ohio EPA assistant district chief
supervising the Marion investigation, said.
was cited by the Ohio EPA for about a dozen hazardous-waste storage
issues in 1993. The state attorney general’s office settled the
dispute in 1994 for $100,400, records show.
Mr. Steers said
officials have been "so focused on military [dumping] activity" as
part of the leukemia investigation that they did not publicly
discuss the industrial disposal practices of Plant City Steel or
Gettman Brothers, both owned by the Harsco Corp.
In 1961, the
military sold 78 acres of land from the engineering depot to the
fledgling River Valley school district. School officials claim the
district was never notified in writing that the southwest portion of
land it was buying had been used to bury military waste.
district opened River Valley High School on that site in 1962 and
its junior high school there in 1968. The site now has a number of
administrative offices too.
Mr. Jones said Plant City Steel
and Gettman Brothers handled hazardous waste, but nothing as harsh
as what the military dumped.
Test samples have been drawn
about 50 feet beyond the fence separating the school property from
the Army Reserve. Past dumping on the Army Reserve site has not been
a priority, in part, because ground water flows away from the
school. Air monitors have not detected any significant air pollution
blowing toward the campus, Mr. Jones said.
"Our primary focus
has been the school property, obviously, because it is a school," he
Residents said officials should be there to explore all
possible causes of the leukemia. They said investigators should have
probed deeper onto the Army Reserve site, knowing that land on both
sides of the fence is polluted.
"The cohesiveness of the
study is severely compromised when you go up to the fence line and
stop," Mr. Griffith said.
Attorney Howard Jones, a 1978 River
Valley graduate who has a daughter attending the high school,
"The thing is, they could have dealt with it two
decades ago," he said. "It’s just very unprofessional oversight and
lack of concern about whether it might affect students."
EPA officials said they have not gone beyond 50 feet because there
are pockets of clean soil, even in areas designated as
"I wouldn’t necessarily call it a buffer. But
there are discreet areas that allowed us to focus on the school
property," Ohio EPA Director Chris Jones said.
Schregardus, who was Ohio EPA director when the investigation began,
was criticized in a ruling issued this month by Judge Thomas F.
Phalen, Jr., a U.S. Labor Department administrative law judge from
In his 106-page ruling, Judge Phalen claimed
evidence shows that Ohio EPA management under Mr. Schregardus
"wanted to do something graduated and far less effective" than a
full investigation in Marion.
The judge ruled the agency
broke federal whistleblower laws by disciplining one of its
employees, Paul Jayko of Toledo, for being forthcoming with details.
One supervisor testified the Ohio EPA management was out to silence
Mr. Jayko because they felt he had become a potential media
Mr. Schregardus was responsible for disciplining Mr.
Jayko, while Ed Hammett, chief of the Ohio EPA’s northwest district
office in Bowling Green, was the one who recommended Mr. Jayko be
taken off the case.
Mr. Schregardus declined to answer
specific questions about the ruling, saying he doesn’t want to
jeopardize the appeal.
"We certainly believed we made the
right decisions at the time. While I certainly have thoughts about
it, I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to express my
personal thoughts until this case is resolved," he said.
judge claimed Mr. Schregardus did not follow a directive from
then-Gov. George Voinovich to "leave no stone unturned" in the
"If that’s what it says, that’s what it
says," Mr. Schregardus replied, declining further
The judge stated he found little credibility in the
testimony of Mr. Hammett, who had claimed that Mr. Jayko was
reassigned because his work performance had declined.
Hammett, contacted at Ohio EPA’s Bowling Green office, declined to
Besides the judge’s ruling, residents point
to other developments to support their claim that the Ohio EPA
intentionally withheld important information from the
w On Sept. 28, an advisory panel funded by the U.S.
Army Corps of Engineers to bring in outside experts voted to sever
ties with Dr. Bruce Molholt, a nationally known toxicologist. The
vote occurred weeks after Dr. Molholt had stunned officials by
declaring at a public meeting July 27 that the schools were not safe
to reopen this fall.
The Ohio EPA claimed Dr. Molholt’s work
was flawed. "We certainly have been critical of Dr. Molholt’s work,"
agency director Chris Jones said. But he said the agency did not
attempt to influence the vote.
wIn the summer of 1999,
officials scrambled to diffuse a potentially-explosive situation
when Jed Ball, a free-lance radiation and health physics technician
from Mount Ulla, N.C., claimed that radiation tests performed in the
initial part of the investigation were faked.
Mr. Ball, hired
on a short-term basis by a subcontractor, Safety and Ecology Corp.
of Knoxville, Tenn., said he recalled being told by an anonymous
supervisor that procedures were designed to ensure nothing would be
found and that workers were brought to the site "as window dressing
to make the public feel safe."
The Corps eventually dismissed
Mr. Ball’s claims as unsubstantiated.
Despite all that has
happened, River Valley Superintendent Tom Shade maintained his
confidence has not been shaken in state or federal agencies. He said
the district relies on them for advice - although it continues to
employ an environmental consultant and team of lawyers for other
"We maintain the campus is safe," Mr. Shade
Yet in an application he filed with the Ohio Schools
Facilities Commission, seeking money for new construction, Mr. Shade
cited several examples of how the site is contaminated.
memo to Governor Taft in April, Attorney Jones suggested that a $1
million grant be issued outright to an economic development group in
Marion to buy the existing school campus if new facilities are ready
in 2003, as expected. Mr. Jones said the grant would be preferable
to a loan to avoid the possibility of having the state someday
inherit the site through a default on the loan.
on what voters decide Nov. 7. The district is asking voters to
approve an additional 6.56 mills for 23 years, a levy that would
cost the owner of a $100,000 house $200.77 a year more in
If approved, the levy would generate $19.6 million and
give the district $43.5 million to build a new high school, new
middle school, and two new elementary schools. The federal
government has agreed to contribute $15 million - substantially less
than it would probably cost the Army to clean up the polluted site
to a residential standard - and the state has offered $8.9
"The district’s at a crossroads. It is a defining
moment," Mr. Shade said. "We need to move forward."