Monday, June 21, 2004

Troubles at Kings multiplied


Officials ask: What next?

By Michael D. Clark
Enquirer staff writer

DEERFIELD TWP. - Last summer, environmental officials came across a 1957 aerial photo while researching historical documents on the former Peters Cartridge munitions factory site in this Warren County community.

The photo revealed a long-forgotten private shooting club operating off Columbia Road on a site that is now Kings Senior and Junior High School. Environmental Protection Agency officials suspected that potentially dangerous toxic lead debris still remained on the school site decades after the shooting stopped in the late 1960s when Kings bought the property.

Soil tests in August confirmed their suspicions. Lead pellets had sunk deep into the soil at concentrations far above what health experts consider safe.

In less than nine months the school system's athletic centerpiece, George E. King Memorial Stadium - which saw crowds of up to 7,000 on football Friday nights - was demolished. Along with it the high school baseball and softball fields and two practice fields were dug up and more than 24,000 tons of contaminated soil hauled away.

The extraordinary environmental cleanup, which covers 12 acres of the high school's 50-acre campus, is the largest ever experienced by a Greater Cincinnati school. And though it will be finished by the end of this month, in its wake remains an estimated $3 million burden for Kings to replace its football stadium.

"This community got slammed," says Kings Superintendent Charles Mason, who had been hired just weeks before the toxic lead was discovered. "A lot of area school districts are facing new tax issues, but it seems like we're facing everything at once. Now we have to come up with some solutions."

School leaders will meet tonight to discuss replacing the stadium and other facility needs.

In May 2003, before the toxic lead discovery in August, Kings voters overwhelmingly rejected a $43 million bond issue that would have allowed the crowded school system to handle its booming enrollment with new and renovated school buildings.

And weeks after the lead discovery, Kings was hit by a windstorm that caused more than $300,000 damage and closed schools for two days. A few months later district officials announced that tax revenue projections had fallen, bringing budget deficits and forcing school officials to cut $2 million - and more than two dozen jobs - during the next two school years. Moreover, they said a series of school tax issues would have to get voters' approval, beginning with either an operating levy, bond issue or both on this November's ballot.

Though the $2 million lead cleanup is being paid for by federal Superfund money, the district has been forced to spend about $20,000 so far on temporary security fencing and reseeding. School officials said they have no reports of any student suffering a possible lead-induced illness.

This fall, for the second season, Kings football and boys and girls soccer will be played at nearby Galbreath Field, on loan from Great American Insurance Co.

But the former College Football Hall of Fame building next to Galbreath Field is being demolished, and along with it locker rooms and restrooms that Kings used.

Kings Board of Education member Toby Darkins said the lead contamination means "we can't talk anymore about renovating a stadium because we don't have one anymore - now we have to talk about replacing a stadium."

Cincinnati Country Day School in Hamilton County also has discovered toxic lead debris.

That site is scheduled to be cleaned by Aug. 1, with no disruption of the school's athletic teams, said Jeff Clark, assistant head of the school, who added that school officials are aware of how fortunate they are compared to Kings.

"I wouldn't wish what they are going through on anyone," said Clark.

Kings lead cleanup

The removal of toxic lead from Kings Senior and Junior High School grounds is the largest project of its kind ever at a Greater Cincinnati school, according to Rafael Gonzalez, spokesman for the EPA's Region 5 headquarters in Chicago.

The cleanup includes:

• Development of a site health and safety plan that includes air quality monitoring to ensure that Kings students and staff were not exposed to contaminated dust during the excavation of toxic soil.

• Creation of a site security plan - including posting numerous warning signs and yellow security tape - to keep people off the site.

• More than 170 soil samples taken to determine the number of contaminated sites, depth and extent beneath the soil. EPA officials found that 27 soil samples exceeded the federal regulations for lead in soil, 400 parts per million. The highest concentration was on the baseball field, where 96,600 parts per million were discovered. The football stadium soil registered at 34,400 parts per million up to 2 feet deep into the soil.

• Hauling away more than 24,000 tons of contaminated soil, replacing nearly all of it with clean dirt, testing the soil for safety, and reseeding. Final work on the school's campus is expected to be completed by the end of this month.

• Finishing work on two adjacent practice fields, loaned by nearby Paramount's Kings Island's owner Viacom to Kings, in an agreement between the EPA and the entertainment company.

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E-mail mclark@enquirer.com

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