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  • New EPA director takes charge of Marion probe

    The multiagency investigation has produced reports of contamination that were not released to the public.

    February 19, 1999

    By Jill Riepenhoff
    Dispatch Staff Reporter

    MARION, Ohio -- After months of communication breakdowns concerning the discovery of toxic waste on the grounds of River Valley schools, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency now is calling the shots, newly appointed director Christopher Jones said yesterday.

    "We are the lead agency. We are driving this investigation,'' Jones said.

    Which agency has been leading the 18-month-old investigation has been blurry almost from the beginning, when parents alerted state health officials of an usually high number of leukemia cases among River Valley graduates and students. The Ohio Department of Health called in the EPA.

    The EPA, in turn, called the Army Corps of Engineers because the school was built on a portion of a World War II-era military depot that closed in 1962.

    Then the Army Reserve entered the picture because of contamination on its land -- former depot property -- which is adjacent to the schools.

    The multiagency investigation has produced reports of contamination that were not released to the public.

  • Areport documenting chemical contamination hundreds of times above acceptable levels just beyond the school campus was quietly slipped into the repository at the Marion Public Library. The corps prepared the report about land owned by the Army Reserve.

  • The EPA failed to tell the public that aerial photographs indicate that the River Valley middle school may have been built on a dump.

  • The corps last March did not disclose that cancer- causing chemicals were detected during a dig on the athletic fields.

    No more, Jones vowed.

    "I've talked to the governor's office about this,'' Jones said. "We need to demonstrate our credibility by having our communication improved.''

    From now on, Jones said, the corps and the Army Reserve will answer to the EPA.

    All testing and cleanup efforts will be coordinated through the EPA, Jones said.

    Jones, on the job since Feb. 1, spoke after meeting privately with about 20 River Valley parents, residents and school officials.

    About 50 other interested parents were excluded from the 90- minute session and waited to hear a report from Jones and the parents.

    Jones summarized the meeting during a 20-minute press conference.

    Marion resident Eloise Nixt, for one, was disappointed.

    "We didn't hear from the parents. It would help for all the citizens to hear what they had to say,'' Nixt said. "I hoped there would be more openness.''

    The meeting was prompted by a request from 10 parents to talk to Jones about their concerns about the investigation. Most of the parents have a child with cancer.

    Selected other parents of the 850 students who attend River Valley middle and high schools, and school officials, also were invited. But the meeting was not open to the public.

    In limiting attendance at the meeting, Jones said, "I want to discuss their concerns with them without this being a media event.''

    During the press briefing, Jones told the parents that the River Valley investigation is a priority and that all testing done so far indicates that children are safe there.

    "Would I send my boys to these schools? Based on what I know right now, yes, I would,'' said Jones, the father of three boys.

    Some parents were comforted by his statement.

    "I believe this man was telling the truth. I appreciated him saying he would send his kids here,'' said Mike Curtis, who has three children attending River Valley schools. "To me, there's no other option but to trust the information that's available.''

    Beth Case, whose son is an eighth-grader at River Valley, also was relieved.

    "I am comfortable with my children going to school here. It's never crossed my mind to pull them out,'' she said. "Our schools may be safer than others. There's been nothing to pinpoint a problem.''

    The River Valley school grounds certainly are safer than other parts of Marion, said Jeff Steers, assistant chief of the EPA's Bowling Green office.

    Marion has a much bigger toxic trouble spot -- the former Baker Wood Creosoting siteon Holland Road on the city's west side, he said.

    Cancer-causing chemicals continue to seep into the Little Scioto River from the site where the company soaked railroad ties in a chemical preservative. The site was used for 100 years until the company closed in about 1960.

    The soil also is highly contaminated. The property, which is not fenced, is so contaminated that the Ohio EPA has asked the federal EPA to take over -- a move the state EPA shunned four years ago.

    The Little Scioto River is a source of Marion's drinking water. The most contaminated stretch, however, is downstream from the treatment plant's intake pipe.

    An EPA document dated Dec. 24 indicates that Ohio American Water, which provides the city's drinking water, is not relying on the Little Scioto River as much as it once did.

    In 1997, the Little Scioto accounted for 47 percent of the water; the Scioto River and well water made up the rest. By the fall of 1998, the Little Scioto accounted for 5 percent of the water, the report said.

    The EPA has said that the drinking water is safe, but testing continues.


    Copyright © 1999, The Columbus Dispatch