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This article is © 1999 The Columbus Dispatch


Date: Sunday, December 5, 1999
Section: NEWS
Page: 01B
Jill Riepenhoff and Tom Sheehan
Dispatch Staff Reporters

MARION, Ohio -- A plan to clean up the most toxic area of River Valley schools is due in three months but building schools is not among the options the Army Corps of Engineers is considering.

School officials and many community members want new high and middle schools. More than half of the 78-acre campus, built on a portion of a former military depot, is contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals.

As the investigation heads into its final stages, school, state and federal officials are at odds over how much contamination exists, whether enough has been done to find it and what should be done to rid the schools of toxic waste.

The most highly contaminated area stretches across 6 acres of ball diamonds. The area has been fenced off for almost two years. The corps will announce in March its cleanup proposal for that site.

The remaining 72 acres remain under investigation.

"My mission is not to construct a new school,'' said Kevin Jasper, the corps' chief investigator on the River Valley project. "I'm here to clean up contamination.''

The corps "will do what it takes to satisfy my regulatory authority,'' he said. River Valley Superintendent Tom Shade is not willing to let the corps off the hook.

"There is no way the taxpayers ought to be given the burden,'' he said. "It's problematic that we continue to operate a school and (will) ever get the ground safe enough.''

School officials are counting on support from state and federal lawmakers and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to sway the Army Corps of Engineers.

"I've got taxpayers and moms and dads and citizens and voters who expect me, under my watch, to protect the physical aspects of the district,'' Shade said.

The schools were built on a portion of the former 640-acre Marion Engineering Depot where equipment was stored and repaired from World War II through the early 1960s.

In 1997, some parents began to suspect that the school grounds were contaminated because a number of graduates had developed leukemia.

State health officials confirmed an unusually high number of leukemia cases among graduates and now are trying to determine whether there is a high rate of cancer overall.

The leukemia rates prompted environmental investigators to take a close look at school grounds. They since have discovered a highly toxic former Army disposal site on some of the schools' athletic fields and lead, petroleum and other solvents scattered across the remaining 72-acre property.

In November 1998, the Army found high levels of toxic waste on the Army Reserve site, west of the fence surrounding school grounds. That land was part of the depot.

The 400 reservists who train there haven't been back since.

The Army now is looking for soldiers who trained there to determine whether they developed cancer.

"We're going to send out letters to the units and soldiers that we have on rosters asking if they have illnesses that they believe came from'' the site, said Capt. Michael Stella of the U.S. Army Reserve 88th Regional Support Command in Fort Snelling, Minn.

A few hundreds yards away, 800 students attend classes at River Valley's middle and high schools.

Corps investigators have said that the buildings are safe after taking soil samples underneath the schools this summer.

But an environmental consultant hired by the school district questions the methods the corps used to test the soil under the buildings.

In fact, Metcalf & Eddy disagrees with almost everything the corps has done and fears that the investigation will uncover only 2 percent of the contamination on the school grounds.

"Your claim that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is conducting these investigations consistent with regulatory guidance and applicable, relevant and appropriate laws and regulations is, at best, debatable,'' Metcalf & Eddy vice president Gerald Myers wrote in a letter to the corps on Nov 24.

Sampling strategies, analysis of data and documentation "all have fallen short of the guidelines and have been conducted in name only,'' Myers wrote.

The corps' lack of response, Myers wrote, illustrates "an indifference to the concerns of the River Valley Local School District, its students and staff, who are the real victims in this serious situation.''

Jasper disagrees and thinks the corps is performing a thorough investigation with the blessing of the state EPA.

But the EPA, which is overseeing the investigation, is not ready to sign off on the corps' work on the remaining 72 acres, either.

"We have not accepted their data. We can't make decisions yet,'' said Jeff Steers, assistant chief of the agency's Bowling Green office.

However, Steers said the school district may have unrealistic expectations.

"There will be contamination left on this property. And that may not be good enough for the district,'' he said.

The EPA, Steers said, will not accept a proposal by the corps to cap the contamination with clay if the schools are not moved.

"As long as there's a school on this property, they're going to have to do some residential cleanup,'' Steers said.

Residential cleanup standards are much more restrictive than industrial standards, which could be applied if the schools are moved.

"Our job is to make sure the process is followed,'' Steers said. "It's not necessarily going to make all the stakeholders happy.''

All content herein is © 1999 The Columbus Dispatch and may not be republished without permission.