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  • Radiation stories told by families

  • Reports of contamination in Marion, Ohio, prompted an investigation.

    Wednesday, October 13, 1999

    By David Lore
    Dispatch Science Reporter

    Ralph Hill, 62, says he has known about radioactive hazards at government munitions plants in the Marion, Ohio, area since he was a teen-ager growing up in the town in the 1950s.

    "I'd overhear my dad saying things to my mom,'' Hill said. "When we were riding around, he'd point and say, 'That's a reactor,' or 'That's where they make the heavy water.' Me being a youngster, I didn't know what he was talking about.''

    Family stories — including the one about the time someone confiscated Pop's radioactive sofa — led in 1989 to a report to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, according to the retired Marion factory worker. A nephew who worked for the commission was alarmed by what he was hearing and notified agency officials, Hill said.

    Government officials at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland responded in 1994 — and again early this year — asking for details, Hill said.

    On Friday, based on conversations with investigators from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine asked the Department of Energy to check the site's history as part of the ongoing probe of pollution around Marion's River Valley High School.

    The 2-year-old investigation — touched off by a high rate of leukemia cases among River Valley graduates — centered on possible chemical contamination from the Marion Engineering Depot. Now investigators also are looking at the site of the former Scioto Ordnance Plant — a wartime bomb factory.

    "There's been no indication it was hot, and there wouldn't have been a reactor there,'' Graham Mitchell, federal facilities chief at Ohio EPA, said of the former plant site.

    Still, Mitchell said that over the years there have been reports by former employees and their families, including the Hills, about postwar radioactive accidents.

    Hill's father, Ralph Hill Sr., was a heavy- equipment operator at the depot and at times wore a badge measuring radioactive exposure, he said.

    Hill recalls that three military officers came to his house one day in the early 1950s with Geiger counters.

    "They proceeded to take the sofa, the chair, his shoes, his clothing, the mattress. Anything from where he would have sat or laid down, they took it,'' he said.

    The younger Hill, who was 14 or 15 at the time, said the family was paid on the spot for their belongings but never received any explanation.

    "Back then, you never asked questions,'' he said.

    Charles Marshall, 88, of Marion worked in a number of nuclear-weapons plants as an electrical engineer during the 1940s and 1950s.

    Marshall said he heard the same stories from former depot workers but can't confirm them. "People knew all this stuff,'' he said yesterday. "But the point of it was, we couldn't talk — nobody could talk.''

    After the Mound nuclear-weapons plant was built near Dayton in 1946 to manufacture nuclear-bomb triggers, a backup facility managed by Monsanto Co. was built at the ordnance plant in Marion in 1949 by the former Atomic Energy Commission, Department of Energy spokeswoman Jane Greenwalt said.

    "We don't know of any reactor that would have been there (Marion), but we're keeping everything open,'' Greenwalt said. "But there never was a reactor at the Mound Plant.''

    The Monsanto building was equipped to produce polonium, an explosive, poisonous element used in bomb triggers. But records indicate it was never operational, Greenwalt said.

    And the Energy Department hasn't uncovered any evidence that radioactive heavy water was usedat Marion, Greenwalt said.

    Barbara Kehoe, a spokeswoman for the Corps of Engineers, said reports of radioactive spills from Hill and other Marion residents were included in the corps' 1994 report. Tests for radioactivity at that time found nothing.

    Kehoe said corps investigators asked for but never received confirmation from Hill of the correspondence with the Army or the commission.

    "We've not seen any of the documentation he's speaking about,'' she said. "He was always unsure what agency it was.''

    Hill said his father was 72when he retired from the Marion County engineering department. He died in 1989 at 78.

    "They made him retire,'' Hill said. "He was just one of those people who went to work, regardless.''

    Hill suspects that radiation exposure sickened both his parents and his sisters.

    "How this all came about was the people out there kept talking about their kids, and they (the government) kept telling these people there was nothing there,'' he said. "Well, I was aware there had to be something there.''


    Copyright © 1999, The Columbus Dispatch