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  • Toxic shock -- Deceptive public servants shirk duties

    February 21, 1999

    Federal and state officials who have engaged in covering up and clamming up about toxic wastes near schools in Marion, Ohio, could become a bigger threat to public health than the environmental hazards themselves.

    As the investigation of possible causes of higher than normal rates of leukemia in the county has progressed, information of genuine concern to the public has been concealed or surreptitiously released. Only pressure from the news media has brought vital facts to light.

    The latest revelation is particularly disturbing, not only because it points to the menace of uncontained toxic chemicals but also because it came into focus only after reporters pressed for answers about a certain report.

    The document in question detailed the presence of hazardous chemicals on the surface and within soil adjacent to the campus of Marion's River Valley Middle and High schools. Investigators concluded that barrels leaking chromium and lead and earth containing unacceptably high levels of trichloroethylene and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, constituted an "imminent threat'' because someone might touch, ingest or breathe these chemicals.

    But Marion residents received precious little notice of the report after its completion in November, despite opportunities at two public meetings of a citizens advisory board, created as the community's arm of the investigation. Instead, a copy of the findings was dropped off without comment on Feb. 1 at the Marion Public Library. The library's collection of information about the investigation into possible environmental causes of the so-called cancer cluster has become a convenient outlet for authorities eager to preclude wider dissemination of facts that would cast them in a bad light.

    On Feb. 12, the day this newspaper published an article about the November report, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency took the uncustomarily responsive action of ordering the Army Reserve to come up with a cleanup plan and to fence off the contaminated sections of its land near the school.

    The EPA, Army Reserve and Army Corps of Engineers have been busy pointing fingers, charging each other with failure to keep the public abreast of developments in the investigation, which began in August 1997.

    A photo that the EPA has had available to study since that time suggests that the middle school may have been built on the site of a dump on the grounds of the Marion Engineering Depot, which closed in 1962. Military trucks and heavy equipment were stored and repaired at the depot during World War II.

    News of this photo didn't surface until last month. Similarly, the fact that tests have found toxic wastes on 41 of the River Valley campus' 78 acres appeared in an EPA report sent to the Army engineers in December but was never addressed publicly. Eight acres of athletic fields have been roped off since last February, following the detection of chemicals linked to cancer on those grounds.

    On Feb. 12, new EPA Director Christopher Jones said the agency would take the initiative to inform people about what is going on, what is being discovered and what is on record at the library. This would be a welcome change.

    The temporary suspension of one of the EPA's staff members, whom the Marion community had come to look upon as a trustworthy whistle-blower, hardly inspires faith in the process. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration ruled that the suspension violated federal laws.

    Confidence in the public servants involved in this case is slipping. The various agencies continue to stand by claims that they see no reason for hasty conclusions nor any reason to believe the schoolchildren are in harm's way.

    The betrayal of the public trust in Marion is inexcusable.


    Copyright © 1999, The Columbus Dispatch