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  • Environmental groups want schools evacuated

    February 17, 1999

    By Jill Riepenhoff
    Dispatch Staff Reporter

  • Meanwhile, the new director of the Ohio EPA will meet with parents and River Valley school officials Thursday.

    Twelve environmental groups say contamination is so extensive on and near the River Valley campus east of Marion, Ohio, that two schools there should be evacuated.

    After quietly watching the investigation unfold for 18 months, the groups yesterday stepped into the foreground to lobby Gov. Bob Taft for swift action.

    "As guardians of future generations, we must act on the side of human health,'' says a letter the groups sent Taft yesterday. "This school and its grounds are contaminated. Children should not be on this site while further studies are being done.''.

    Revelations that the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had not informed the Marion community about the extent of the contamination on and near the school grounds moved the groups to act, they said.

    The Sierra Club, Ohio Citizen Action, the Ohio Environmental Council and the Ohio Public Interest Research Group are among the groups rallying with a small but growing group of River Valley parents in a call to close the schools, where 850 students are enrolled.

    "We need some white knight to come in and take over the problem,'' said Glenn Landers of the Sierra Club.

    He and other environmentalists hope Taft will fill that role.

    At the request of the governor, newly appointed EPA Director Christopher Jones will meet privately with school officials and parents on Thursday, said Scott Milburn, Taft spokesman. Jones will be the first high- ranking state official to discuss the investigation with River Valley parents or school leaders.

    Milburn had not seen the letter from environmentalists and was unsure whether Taft had seen it.

    Nearly two years ago, parents pushed state environmental and health officials to scrutinize an unusually high number of leukemia cases among River Valley graduates.

    Now, the chorus is growing. Other groups signing the letter to the governor were the Buckeye Environmental Network, Citizens Protection Ohio, Concerned Citizens of Bellevue, Lorain County Neighbors Protecting Our Environment, Neighbors Protecting Our Environment, Rural Action, Tri State Environmental Council and the Greene Environmental Coalition.

    The schools were built on a portion of the former Marion Engineering Depot, the largest military operation of its kind from World War II through 1962.

    The military dumped, buried and burned toxic chemicals on and near what are now the school grounds, 5 miles east of Marion and 40 miles north of Columbus.

    Contamination has been confirmed on more than half of the 78-acre campus. The school buildings themselves have been deemed safe.

    Just outside a chain-link fence that surrounds the grounds, chemicals linked to leukemia and other forms of cancer were detected in the soil at levels hundreds of times above what health officials consider acceptable. The property is now owned by the Army Reserve.

    A report detailing the contamination was withheld from the public for 10 weeks. The agencies also had evidence that a hazardous-waste dump may have existed where the middle school was built in 1963.

    The agencies didn't talk publicly about either discovery until The Dispatch asked about them. The EPA since has ordered the Army Reserve to clean up the site within six weeks.

    "It supports our position that the Ohio EPA sometimes glosses over the facts,'' said BruceCornett of the Greene Environmental Coalition, based in Xenia, Ohio.

    The EPA, the Corps and the Ohio Department of Health each have stated repeatedly that children attending River Valley schools are safe.

    School officials also have said they are confident that the middle- and high-school students are safe. They have vowed to examine other options if conditions change.

    A new high school for about 600 students would cost about $12.8 million, according to a formula the state School Facilities Commission uses to calculate construction costs. A new middle school for 400 students would cost about $7.7 million.

    The Corps has allocated $5 million to investigate the depot and the adjacent Scioto Ordnance Plant, where bombs were made during World War II. The EPA spent $500,000 on the investigation last year, said spokeswoman Beth Gianforcaro.

    A mathematical calculation of the health risk posed by the hazardous-waste sites has been delayed until the fall while additional tests are conducted.

    "I can't imagine gambling with these kids' lives while we run numbers,'' Landers said.


    Copyright © 1999, The Columbus Dispatch