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Leukemia fears, man's scary take trigger Marion radiation probe

Saturday, October 09, 1999


MARION - Ralph Hill Jr. vividly remembers the day nearly 50 years ago when three government men carrying Geiger counters and wearing what looked like space suits walked into his family's home.

Now, Hill's account has prompted authorities trying to explain a leukemia cluster here to re-examine the possibility that Marion was home to a secret link in the nuclear weapons complex.

The Army Corps of Engineers and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency have asked the Department of Energy to reopen an investigation of the now-abandoned Scioto Ordnance Plant, focusing on a laboratory once owned by the Atomic Energy Commission.

And U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine, an Ohio Republican, asked the federal Energy Department yesterday to "begin an immediate investigation" of the site to determine if it poses health and safety risks to residents or the environment.

"It is my understanding that the Army Corps of Engineers has uncovered evidence of possible activity involving radioactive material at the Scioto Ordnance Laboratory in Marion," DeWine wrote to energy Secretary Bill Richardson.

DeWine said yesterday that the Army told his staff it had information from people who handled radioactive material at an Energy Department facility in Marion.

"That was the first time we had that information," DeWine said. "We ought to be very concerned if it is true."

Hill's father, who worked as a heavy equipment operator for the nearby Marion Engineer Depot, told his family of helping to clean up a "spill."

Soon after, the men with Geiger counters made an unscheduled visit to Hill's home, taking away everything that caused the radiation-detection devices to click loudly: a chair, sofa, sheets, mattress, and his father's clothing and shoes.

The family eventually received a government check for the confiscated items, Hill said. But they never received an explanation. He believes his father was contaminated by a radiation accident at either the ordnance plant - a World War II-era bomb-making factory that government officials have long insisted was never involved in atomic research or the making of the atomic bomb - or at the depot, which provided custodial services to the plant.

"We've been talking about this since Mr. Hill surfaced," said Kevin Jasper, project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers. "We are coordinating this within the corps, asking the DOE to proceed with an investigation of that property. We need to look at this area."

For the past two years, the Corps of Engineers, Ohio EPA, Ohio Department of Health and other government agencies have been in Marion, testing soil, air and water samples and interviewing residents, hoping to solve the mystery of the city's unusually high rate of leukemia - a type of cancer sometimes linked to radiation exposure.

Leukemia has jumped 122 percent in Marion in the past 30 years. During the same period, the rate dropped by 30 percent for the remainder of Marion County and by 8 percent for the rest of Ohio, according to the state health department. Since 1966, investigators have confirmed 151 leukemia deaths in Marion County - 66 of them since 1986.

Until recently, much of the probe has focused on the River Valley middle and high schools, where nine graduates from 1965 to 1996 developed leukemia. Based on the schools' 850-student population, medical experts say they would expect leukemia to show up in just two.

So far, investigators have discovered and removed 1,700 tons of arsenic-contaminated soil, a radioactive bridge marker and nearly 70 drums of waste - some hazardous - near the schools, which were built on or near military dumping sites.

Along the way, however, investigators turned up clues that point beyond the schools: Longtime residents and former ordnance plant employees who say that uranium, which is used to produce the plutonium used to make nuclear weapons, was stored in the basement of a former chapel on the plant grounds. A former firefighter who recalled employees at the former Atomic Energy Commission site saying the plant produced heavy water - radioactively enriched water used in the production of the atomic bomb. People say the depot once received crates marked "Manhattan Project," the code name for the program that developed the first atomic bomb.

But it is Hill's story of the men with Geiger counters - verified by his siblings - that is prompting government officials to re-examine the possibility that radioactive material once existed at the sprawling 12,000-acre ordnance plant - a theory they had previously shelved.

The Army Corps said it lacks the authority to investigate the Atomic Energy Commission's site, which is a small portion of the ordnance plant property.

A Department of Energy official said the agency will reopen its files on the site and later determine if a more detailed investigation is warranted.

Stories such as Hill's have the ring of authenticity, said Ruth Vandergrift, supervisor of the bureau of radiation protection for the state health department.

"If someone gets contaminated and they take that home with them, wherever they go with it - an easy chair , bedding - that's where you'll find it," Vandergrift said.

Hill's father died in December 1989 of respiratory failure and myeloproliferative disorder, a blood disorder sometimes related to leukemia, according to his death certificate. Hill's mother developed a form of leukemia before she died of heart disease, according to two of Hill's sisters.

Hill said that on different occasions, his father pointed out a building at the Scioto lab site, telling him that a "reactor" was inside, Hill said.

"What he told me was that that was where they made heavy water. It didn't dawn on me until I got in the [military- later what that meant."

Robert Ferguson, 76, a former fireman and the former public safety director at the Marion Engineering Depot, buttressed part of Hill's story.

Ferguson said he visited the Scioto Laboratory while it was operating.

"When I was on the fire department, we had to go out and inspect, and we were told they were involved in manufacturing of heavy water," Ferguson said. "Heavy water is a component used in the manufacturing of the atomic bomb, but why or how they used it, I have no idea."

Jane Greenwalt, spokeswoman for the Department of Energy, said the agency will re-examine its Scioto Laboratory records, including those it maintains at the Mound Laboratory in Miamisburg, Ohio.

"Then we will make a decision on what we need to do," Greenwalt said. "We will probably do a scan of what is out there."

The Atomic Energy Commission hired the Monsanto Co. in the late 1940s to construct both labs. The Marion lab was developed as a backup to the Miamisburg facility, which was designed to build nuclear triggers for atomic bombs, according to government records.

Complicating the probe is the shroud of secrecy that has long surrounded atomic research.

"There may not be records, or they may not be easy to find," said Graham Mitchell, chief of federal facilities oversight for the Ohio EPA.

Even Department of Energy officials appear somewhat uncertain about the facility's past.

Greenwalt said the department is "98.9 percent sure" that the Scioto Laboratory was never used and no "reactor" was at the site.

"We don't believe we used it at all for anything," Greenwalt said. "Radioactive materials were never introduced to the [lab] facility, and it never became operational."

At least one federal record appears to contradict her.

A 1953 Department of Energy report estimates operating costs for the Mound lab would hit $20 million by 1961, while costs at the Scioto Lab would top $17 million.

Asked why both labs would have multimillion-dollar operating budgets if just one was in use, Greenwalt replied: "I'm as surprised to hear that as you are. You may want to end your story with, "Stay tuned.' As we get more documents, we may get more information."

Phone: (216) 999-4213

©1999 THE PLAIN DEALER. Used with permission.

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