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  • EPA faults Marion investigation

    Wednesday, January 05, 2000

    By Jill Riepenhoff
    Dispatch Staff Reporter

    A federal agency's lackadaisical approach to obtaining historical photographs of potential toxic waste at River Valley schools jeopardizes a three-year environmental investigation, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency says.

    "This lack of thoroughness by the Army is extremely disconcerting at this stage of the investigation,'' Jeff Steers, assistant chief of the EPA's Bowling Green office, wrote in a terse letter to the Army Corps of Engineers.

    The EPA vows not to accept an investigation by the corps that does not include a full review of historical data.

    The EPA is concerned that the corps is overlooking trouble spots that may be hidden by grass and brush. Aerial photographs shot in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s provide a glimpse into disposal activities when the Marion Engineering Depot was an active military equipment-restoration operation.

    In the early 1960s, River Valley bought 78 acres and built its middle and high schools.

    Last week, Marion County resident Mike Griffith presented the EPA with an aerial photograph shot in 1944 -- the earliest photo investigators have seen to date.

    The photo depicts trenches -- potential chemical-burial sites -- that Steers called "areas of concern.'' The site shown in the photo has not been fully tested by the corps, he said.

    As a result, the EPA wants the corps to find and review every aerial photograph available.

    "Surely, if the general public has the ability to gain access to this information, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should be able to readily identify such photos,'' Steers wrote.

    Griffith, a River Valley graduate, has voiced such concerns for a year.

    Frustrated that the investigative agencies were ignoring his pleas, he ordered and paid $500 to obtain a number of aerial photographs from the U.S. Geological Survey, the Library of Congress and other public sources.

    "To act like they couldn't find it is absurd,'' Griffith said. "I don't want to do anything to prolong the agony of this situation. But they're not doing it right.''

    The corps' analysis of the 78-acre campus has been comprehensive, said Kevin Jasper, the corps' chief investigator. "The answers are in the analytical data. At this point, at this site, considering all the sampling that's been done, the impact (of newly discovered photographs) probably is minimal. But we'll look at it.''

    The corps does not need to review every photo from every year of depot operations to make sound scientific decisions, Jasper said. "At some point, you need to move forward.''

    The schools have been the focus of an investigation since 1997, when state health officials confirmed that leukemia rates among River Valley graduates were unusually high.

    The number of leukemia cases among graduates continues to grow as health officials attempt to contact every alumnus, according to the Ohio Department of Health.

    As the probe unfolded, investigators found a former Army dump with high levels of cancer-causing chemicals on some of the schools' athletic fields, forcing officials to fence off 6 acres. Pockets of contamination have been found elsewhere.

    Last month, officials closed off two middle-school back doors after a cancer-causing chemical was detected in a single soil sample. A 1959 photograph among those obtained by Griffith shows an area of disturbance near what is now those doors.

    "The direction and approach to site investigation for River Valley Schools has been significantly guided by historical information and aerial photography,'' Steers wrote to the corps. "Ohio EPA will not accept the investigation of the River Valley school grounds as being complete without such an analysis.

    "Aside from the potential impacts to the site investigation, I would like to re-emphasize the significance of such oversights with respect to community relations and the credibility of the Army to conduct a comprehensive and thorough investigation.''


    Copyright © 2000, The Columbus Dispatch