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  • Officials want probe of Marion laboratory

    Saturday, October 09, 1999

    By Randall Edwards
    Dispatch Environment Reporter

  • Some say radioactive material was spilled after World War II at the Scioto Ordnance facility.

    Army investigators and U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine are asking the Department of Energy to lead an environmental investigation into the site of a postwar Atomic Energy Commission laboratory in Marion, Ohio.

    The Energy Department's possible involvement in Marion has evolved from an ongoing probe of former military sites in Marion County, an investigation that was triggered by a health study that showed a higher-than- expected number of leukemia cases among graduates of River Valley High School.

    Radiation is a known cause of leukemia, and though a 1994 radiological survey of the site showed normal radiation levels, investigators want to know more about what took place at the Scioto Ordnance Laboratory in the years immediately after World War II.

    The laboratory was on land that was part of the 12,000-acre Scioto Ordnance Plant. It was about 5 miles north of the River Valley campus, which is just east of Marion.

    The lab was operated by Monsanto for the Atomic Energy Commission beginning in 1948, said Kevin Jasper, who is leading the investigation at River Valley for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

    "It was set up to be a backup for the Mound facility,'' Jasper said yesterday, referring to the Mound nuclear-weapons plant near Dayton. "Exactly what went on in there I don't know.''

    Documents from the Atomic Energy Commission suggest that a nuclear reactor was -- built but never operated, Jasper said.

    Marion residents who called a government hot line told stories of radioactive materials being used on the site and stored in a former church known as Likens Chapel.

    One resident reported hearing of a spill of radioactive "heavy water'' at the site, Jasper said.

    The laboratory in the Monsanto building is now privately owned and used as a trucking warehouse.

    Jasper said the corps already was meeting with the Department of Energy before Wednesday, when DeWine, R-Ohio, sent a letter to Energy Secretary William Richardson.

    "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.

    DeWine could not be reached yesterday, but his letter goes on to say that the Corps of Engineers uncovered the evidence during its investigation of the plant.

    DeWine asked for a speedy review of historical records and "radioactive sampling to determine whether this site presents a risk to the health and safety of area residents as well as to the environment.''

    One resident welcomed the Energy Department's involvement.

    "We need all the information we can get because after 21/2 ears, we need to start getting some answers,'' Jodi Griffith said.

    DeWine asked that the responsibility for any cleanup be transferred to the Energy Department's program for former government atomic sites.

    The investigation now is being handled by the corps through its program for cleaning up former military sites. The ordnance plant was a separate facility adjacent to the Marion Engineering Depot, a wartime vehicle depot that now is the site of River Valley High School.

    The probe at the school has not revealed evidence of radioactive contamination. But one technician who worked on those surveys has said reports were doctored and that he was told not to find any radiation. The Army is investigating his complaints.

    The Scioto Ordnance plant was a major munitions factory during World War II. Workers loaded artillery shells and made incendiary bombs there during the war.

    The investigation of the plant and the Marion Engineering Depot began in 1997 after the Ohio Department of Health learned that a large number of graduates of River Valley had developed leukemia.

    The Corps of Engineers had heard many of these rumors. It conducted a limited radiological survey in 1994, focusing on the Monsanto building and Likens Chapel, but found nothing unusual, Jasper said.

    Much of the information about the buildings is contained in an archives search report released to the public last November.

    "But we feel that, based on the historical information and the fact that there is a facility there that hasn't been carefully looked at, we need to look to the resources of the DOE,'' Jasper said.

    But the archives report was released almost a year ago, and the corps did not call in the Department of Energy then, Griffith said.

    "What was contained there was mostly interviews with former employees, and how much was pursued beyond that, I'm not aware,'' she said.


    Copyright © 1999, The Columbus Dispatch