Sunday, May 23, 1999

Hazardous chemicals around high school raise cancer fears

The Cincinnati Enquirer

At now closed baseball field at River Valley High: Kent and Roxanne Krumanaker, whose daughter has leukemia, and Barry and Melanie Serpa, who has Hodgkin's disease.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        MARION, Ohio — Prom dates. Friday night football games. Friends scribbling Luv U 4ever in senior yearbooks. They are the memories you are supposed to take away from high school. But if you graduated from River Valley High School, a small rural school district just east of this central Ohio town, you may have taken away something else - something that, at worst, will take your life and, at best, leave you with a lifetime of wondering.

        Leukemia. Hodgkin's Disease. A host of cancers.

        Since the mid-1960s, all these diseases have occurred frequently among graduates of River Valley High School, leaving scores of families devastated by illness and wondering whether they suffered because they went to school on a site where the ground is laced with deadly cancer-causing chemicals.

Cap to a monitoring well near the school.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
        A group of residents, who have lobbied to get the school closed, say they have documented 92 cases of cancer in River Valley graduates from 1965 through 1996.

        Concerned River Valley Families, the local residents' organization, say they know of 13 cases of leukemia alone. A study last year by Robert Indian of the Ohio Department of Health documented only six confirmed leukemia cases among River Valley graduates, but said that only two would have been expected among that group in a 30-year period.

        State health and environmental officials have not dismissed the residents' concerns out of hand, but they insist that there is no direct evidence that the chemicals on the grounds have caused leukemia or other cancers.

        In February, William Ryan, director of the Ohio Department of Health, said there is “no current evidence that shows any relationship between what's been found at the site to date and leukemia.”

        Recently, though, officials have acknowledged the extent of the pollution at the school site.

        A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report on the site near the school was completed last November, but not released to the public until February. It concluded that the chemicals in the ground cause an “imminent threat” to humans.

        The high school and junior high school, which have about 850 students, are adjacent to the former Marion Engineering Depot, a U.S. Army post where, during the 1940s and 1950s, tons of hazardous chemicals were buried, much of it in a 77-acre area that became the schools' athletic fields.

        Melanie Serpa is convinced that the two diagnoses of Hodgkin's disease, a tumor of the lymph glands, she has had since graduating from River Valley in 1983 are directly related to the Army dumping site.

        And she can show you exactly where she thinks the seeds of her disease were planted.

        “Look out there along the fence line,” Mrs. Serpa said on a recent afternoon, standing near the junior high and pointing to the athletic fields beyond.

        “I was on the cross-country team,” said Mrs. Serpa, who lives now with her husband, Barry, and their children an hour away in the Columbus suburb of Westerville.

        “We used to run along the perimeter back there, all the way around the school grounds,” she said. “In the mud. In the rain. Tell me that didn't have something to do with it.”

        The area is now fenced off by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which in February was ordered by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to begin a clean-up of the dump site.

        Nine girls made up the cross-country team Mrs. Serpa ran with in the early 1980s. She developed Hodgkin's; one of her teammates, Kim Krumanaker, was diagnosed with leukemia 10 years after graduation.

        “Two out of nine is a lot,” Mrs. Serpa said.

        Today, the Serpas and Kim's parents, Roxanne and Kent Krumanaker of Marion, are among the most active members of Concerned River Valley Families, a group of several dozen families of past and present River Valley students who, for the past several years, have been doggedly battling with state and federal officials to get the site cleaned and the school moved.

        Mrs. Krumanaker said that, after her daughter was diagnosed, she and her husband started hearing of other River Valley families with cases of leukemia and other illnesses.

        “The more I heard, the more I was convinced it had to be the school,” Mrs. Krumanaker said.

        “Agitation” is what Concerned River Valley Families has been about — agitating the local school board, state health officials, the U.S. Army to get the kind of ground and air test sampling to find out what exactly is in the ground where their children had walked to school, played ball and marched in high school bands for decades.

        Often, the “agitators” found themselves isolated and even shunned by others in the community.

        “For the longest time, we've heard that we are the troublemakers, that somehow there wouldn't be a problem if we would go away,” Mrs. Krumanaker said.

        Mr. Krumanaker said he remembers one of the first public meetings in 1997 where the residents' groups raised the issue with local officials. A local development official, Mr. Krumanaker said, “got up and said, "There may be a problem here, but we've got to keep this low key. We could lose jobs.' I was so hot I couldn't see straight. We're talking about people's lives here.”

        In land just outside the chain-link fence around the River Valley schools — where Melanie Serpa, Kim Krumanaker and hundreds of other young athletes have run over the years — the report found 310 times the acceptable amount of trichloroethylene, a cancer-causing chemical compound.

        Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, were found on the surface at a rate 228 times the accepted levels.

        Of the U.S. EPA's “top 20” list of hazardous substances, 14 have been found on school grounds.

        School officials have said that federal and state health and environmental officials have given them no reason to think that children at the school are at risk. But, in recent weeks, school officials have hinted that they are willing to consider what the Concerned River Valley Families group has wanted all along — to seek federal or state funding to build a new school campus elsewhere.

        “If it were up to us, that school would be shut down next fall,” Mrs. Krumanaker said.

        Public-health and environmental officials at the state and federal levels have said not enough testing has been done to establish a direct link between the chemical dumping and the incidence of leukemia and other cancers among River Valley graduates.

        But school officials are talking about relocation now not because they acknowledge a health risk, but because, they say, it would be less costly than a cleanup. Estimates for cleaning the school grounds and nearby Army reserve land range from $60 million to $100 million.

        State Rep. Robert Gooding, a Democrat from nearby Waldo, has introduced an amendment to the proposed state budget that would let schools with environmental hazards, such as River Valley, use state money to move.

        River Valley superintendent Tom Shade said the environmental assessment of the school property would have to be completed before a relocation decision is made.

        In the meantime, the wondering continues — for those who have suffered illnesses and the students now who wonder what their fate might be.

        One of them, 17-year-old Amanda Lovett, a cheerleader and junior who hopes someday to be a doctor or lawyer, doesn't have to wonder. When a lump appeared on the back of her neck two years ago, she was diagnosed with leukemia, a condition that had never appeared in her family before.

        Her leukemia is in remission and she is back in school full time, singing with the school's show choir and keeping up her “A” and “B” grades. She will finish chemotherapy this summer but faces a lifetime of testing to make sure the cancer has not returned.

        Often, she said, the other kids in school “joke about what's going on here. "Let's go out and get some radiation.' That kind of stuff.

        “I laugh sometimes, but it makes me mad, too,” she said. “This is not a joke to me. I'm going to be searching for an answer to why this happened for the rest of my life.”


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