This week families in Marion, Ohio are hoping to get some answers. In this small town of about forty thousand, graduates of the River Valley School district have been contracting leukemia at an alarming rate. For years, state officials have been looking into a possible cause. In the first of two reports, 90.3's April Baer has some background on the mystery surrounding River Valley.
AB- In 1997 a school nurse took notice that a surprising number of students who'd graduated from the River Valley Local School District had contracted leukemia. In fact, what she reported was a leukemia rate three times the national average.
Roxane Krumanaker is the mother of a River Valley graduate who was diagnosed with Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia in 1993. Her daughter Kim almost died from the disease, before undergoing a bone marrow transplant. While Kim's been cured of her leukemia, Roxane Krumanaker says her daughter still suffers health problems related to her treatment.
Roxane Krumanaker- She will never be able to bear children. She's lost the hearing in her right ear. She can't cry tears. The high doses of prednazone that she had to be on to save her life destroyed her joints. So she's already had one knee replacement...Then she'll have to have her other knee replaced, and her two wrists.
AB- For the past three years, the Ohio Department of Health and several other agencies have been investigating what made Kim and dozens of other graduates fall sick.
AB- The answer to Marion's leukemia rates apparently lies in the very foundation of the schools - maybe even under the sidewalk, where these students are scrambling onto their afternoon buses. The district bought this land in the 1960s from the US Army. Before that it was home to the Marion Engineering Depot, a supply stop for heavy equipment. Despite the land's history, these River Valley students don't seem too worried about about the school's location.
Student- It ain't no big deal. Yeah, well if we die I hope we don't die at school...
AB- So you guys don't worry about this too much, huh?
Student- Nah, not really. I just think it's a bunch of bullcrap.
AB- The US Army Corps of Engineers says the military used to do a lot of work here with industrial-strength chemical solvents. Fifty years ago, standard disposal methods weren't very sophisticated. Barbara Kehoe is a spokesperson for the Army Corps of Engineers. She says these volatile substances were often just buried in the ground.
Barbara Kehoe- We have acknowledged that there is a disposal area, approximately six acres....that we have acknowledged has some levels of TCE which is a degreasing solvent present in the subsurface...These were materials that ...could not be burned off....and therefore that was just basically the landfill for these materials on the Marion Engineer Depot.
AB- Over the past three years several investigations have been trying to determine exactly what went into the ground at River Valley - and whether those chemicals are affecting Marion's children. The Ohio EPA and the Army Corps are working on an environmental study on the disposal site, which is scheduled to be released this Thursday.
So far, the fields around the schools have yielded enough contamination that the Army and the Ohio EPA have ordered them roped off. Waving his hand from an office window toward that mysterious six acres, River Valley Superintendent Tom Shade says the ropes are no long-term solution.
Tom Shades- We paid fair market value for this property. We did not have anything to do with putting this contamination here, and we certainly do not believe that was done intentionally ... We have nothing to believe that there was something going on here that shouldn't have been. It's simply what was done in the 1950s and in the 1960s. We're now in the year 2000, and we find that this was a formal defense site, there was dumping, there has been a pit out here where they out semi-volatile and volatile chemicals into it, and that poses a problem for us.
AB- Shade says one of two things must happen, and soon. Either the Army Corps must clean up those six acres, or the U-S government's going to have to pay to relocate River Valley to a site where students and staff will be safe.
It's not clear yet what the cost of solving River Valley's problem might be. The school has compiled some figures, based on the work of an environmental consultant, and the Army Corps of Engineers says it will release a second report in March, suggesting some long-term options for clean-up. Tomorrow, we'll take a look the complexity of River Valley's situation, and why it won't be easy to determine who's ultimately responsible.
For INFOHIO, I'm April Baer in Cleveland.