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  • House vote helps River Valley

    Bill first step to moving schools off contaminated site

    Friday, May 19, 2000

    Tom Sheehan and Ann Fisher
    Dispatch Staff Reporters

    The River Valley schools complex will move from its contaminated site in Marion County if federal, state and local officials agree on how to divvy up relocation costs.

    By a vote of 353-63, the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday approved unprecedented language in a bill that gives the Army Corps of Engineers the authority to consider school relocation as a cleanup option. A similar bill is pending in the Senate.

    The legislation isn't specific to the River Valley issue, but it is a necessary first step to help the district rebuild the middle school and high school on safe ground, said a spokeswoman for Rep. Michael Oxley, R-Findlay, whose district includes the area.

    "One of the major obstacles . . . is the corps' lack of legal authority to pursue such an option,'' Peggy Peterson said.

    Parents in the district became concerned three years ago when higher-than- normal rates of leukemia were discovered among the schools' alumni. Subsequent investigations have revealed contamination on the site.

    Funding is not part of the House measure, which authorizes all Department of Defense operations for fiscal year 2001. An appropriation should come later in another measure, but also would not specify the proposed River Valley move.

    The corps and the school district must sign a "memorandum of agreement'' on the relocation plan.

    Under the agreement, the corps likely would pay for the bulk of the cleanup and construction costs for the new schools, among other things, a source said.

    The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency would help pay cleanup costs. Cleanup standards for the site would be reduced to industrial quality from residential quality, a source said.

    The school district would pay for land and some portion of the cost to rebuild, a source said.

    Everyone contacted yesterday said details remain unclear.

    Tom Shade, River Valley schools superintendent, yesterday confirmed that a deal involving local, state and federal money is in the works to relocate the high school and middle school.

    School officials have estimated it would cost about $24.3 million to build two schools.

    The district also has applied for funding with the Ohio School Facilities Commission under its Extreme Environmental Contamination Program. Shade said that through that program, the district could receive as much as 21 percent of the cost of whatever is done with the high school and middle school.

    A source close to the negotiations said River Valley would be the top priority for the program if federal money for the project is assured.

    Randall Fischer, school facilities commission director, said the River Valley application will be decided by mid-June.

    Shade would not discuss specifics. "We've been meeting. At this point there has been nothing officially entered into. There have been several amounts discussed.''

    An announcement is expected today.

    "We've always maintained the cost-effective solution'' is relocation of the schools, Shade said.

    The schools were built in the 1960s on a 72-acre site that is part of a former military depot where equipment was stored and repaired from World War II through the early 1960s. Chemical waste was dumped on that site.

    The corps in 1997 began investigating toxic contamination on the site after concerns were raised by community members about a high rate of leukemia among graduates of the high school. Other state and federal agencies have joined in the investigation.

    In February, the corps released results of a study that showed about 10 acres of the campus had elevated levels of contamination, including polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, and chemical trichloroethylene, or TCE. The report stated that health risks appear minimal.

    Still pending is a corps assessment of the entire campus and the balance of the 640-acre former depot site, including an Army Reserve area where contamination also is suspected. Corps officials have said that cleaning up the school site is a possibility.

    The corps since late April has delayed releasing since a study that will propose how to manage the contamination.

    Whatever is done about the high school and middle school will affect the district's elementary schools, Shade said. Voters in March rejected bond issues to pay for a new elementary school.

    If local money is needed to pay for relocation, he said, the school board would need to decide by Aug. 23 whether to put a tax issue on the November ballot.


    Copyright 2000, The Columbus Dispatch