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  • Marion students at risk, expert says

    Toxicologist criticizes air monitoring at contaminated River Valley site

    Sunday, August 6, 2000

    Tom Sheehan
    Dispatch Staff Reporter

    More than 100 children in Toms River, N.J., have been diagnosed with cancer during the past 20 years that might be linked to drinking water contaminated with chemical waste.

    Environmental consultant Bruce Molholt said he sees many similarities between the New Jersey town and a school complex situated on a former military depot used as a dump for chemical waste in Marion County.

    Molholt is a former federal Superfund toxicologist who has investigated Toms River, where a high incidence of childhood cancer led residents to take legal action.

    Molholt was hired this summer by a consultant to a government and Marion citizens advisory group, the Restoration Advisory Board. Last week, he told the board that he thinks testing procedures have failed to detect high levels of vinyl chloride vapors that could pose a threat to River Valley students and others.

    Several officials disagree with Molholt's conclusions.

    "We're confident we've looked for it, and we haven't found it,'' said Jeff Steers of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, a member of the advisory board. "We certainly are willing to take input from anyone who has theories about what we are doing, but we want to make sure it's a complete review.''

    Molholt has performed a preliminary review of data at River Valley High School and Middle School, unlike the years of work at Toms River. He said that although the risks at the Marion County site threaten a much smaller group and are caused by different chemicals, they appear to be just as serious.

    "I do want to assist as much as I can to get down to the bottom of this,'' Molholt said in a telephone interview this week. "There is an on- going exposure.''

    He said he thinks the 800 students who attend River Valley, as well as others who work at or use the schools, are at risk for toxic contamination and should be relocated.

    Officials said they think students are safe. They point out that Molholt is the first expert to reach such conclusions, and they note that the most contaminated areas of the 78-acre campus have been fenced off or restricted.

    They also said that Molholt has not reviewed all of the available data and that his assumptions are based on limited information.

    Moholt said he bases his opinion about Marion on several factors, including what he sees as gaps in testing data collected during the past three years by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies investigating the contamination at River Valley.

    The Ohio Department of Health has confirmed there is a much-higher-than-expected rate of leukemia among River Valley graduates. There also is a higher rate of esophageal cancer, although there are no known environmental causes for that type of cancer.

    Moholt said more sophisticated air monitoring is needed, particularly in the winter, because the vapors can move laterally in the soil and then be pulled into the air inside the schools.

    He said vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen, is a byproduct of TCE, or chemical trichloroethylene.

    TCE is a solvent used to clean metal parts, and although the investigation has shown there is TCE contamination on the grounds of the 640-acre former Marion Engineering Depot, no vinyl chloride has been detected.

    "I believe it's there and they have missed it,'' Moholt said. "It may be just one of the culprits. I didn't realize until I took a site tour that there is so much additional solvent in the ground.''

    Steers of the Ohio EPA and Kevin Jasper of the Corps of Engineers said a review of testing procedures used in the past three years shows that air monitoring for vinyl chloride was done properly.

    Jasper said officials want to meet with Molholt to further discuss his concerns. Jasper said that air monitoring continues and that officials think the schools are safe to use.

    Because of the suspected vinyl- chloride threat, Molholt, who teaches environmental studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said River Valley students should be relocated as soon as possible.

    A plan is under way to use a combination of state, federal and local funds to build two schools. However, students wouldn't be moved until schools are built, and no cleanup of contamination would be done until after the students are gone.

    Molholt said that's too long to wait and that it's likely such a plan could take longer to complete, leaving the students at their current schools for a longer period of time.

    River Valley Superintendent Thomas Shade said the two schools are set to open Aug. 22.

    Shade said he'll reconsider the start date "if I have compelling information prior to the start of school that there is an imminent health threat.''


    Copyright 2000, The Columbus Dispatch