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October 20, 2000


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Article published October 20, 2000

Records: EPA stayed mum on contamination
Discovery of school grounds’ past angers Marion residents

River Valley High School in Marion, O., opened in 1962 near land that was once used to bury military waste. BLADE PHOTO BY JEREMY WADSWORTH


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 relevant.

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.

But residents near this city 100 miles southeast of Toledo are crying foul.

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 1990s.

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 Marion.

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.

A 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.

Bob 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 there.

"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.

Gettman Brothers 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.

The 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 said.

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, agreed.

"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."

Ohio EPA officials said they have not gone beyond 50 feet because there are pockets of clean soil, even in areas designated as contaminated.

"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.

Don 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 Cincinnati.

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 leak.

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.

The judge claimed Mr. Schregardus did not follow a directive from then-Gov. George Voinovich to "leave no stone unturned" in the Marion investigation.

"If that’s what it says, that’s what it says," Mr. Schregardus replied, declining further comment.

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.

Mr. Hammett, contacted at Ohio EPA’s Bowling Green office, declined to be interviewed.

Besides the judge’s ruling, residents point to other developments to support their claim that the Ohio EPA intentionally withheld important information from the public:

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 opinions.

"We maintain the campus is safe," Mr. Shade said.

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.

In a 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.

Much depends 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 taxes.

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 million.

"The district’s at a crossroads. It is a defining moment," Mr. Shade said. "We need to move forward."

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