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Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman's order to conduct health surveys of residents near a city park tainted with toxins is a step toward restoring trust and assuaging fear, especially since neighbors now know the city was aware of the problem for far longer than it had acknowledged.
On Tuesday, the mayor told Columbus Public Health to determine if the Near East Side residents have been sickened. "We need to dig deeper," Coleman said. "This is a situation that has been there for generations."
Saunders Park is near a fertilizer plant that closed in 1970. The Dispatch reported on Sunday that Columbus Recreation and Parks officials knew of contamination there for nearly three years before the public found out. Letters, memos and other documents show them trying to figure out safe levels of the dioxins and heavy metals at Saunders Park in early 2011.
Yet, kids continued to play there in city-sponsored recreation leagues throughout 2011, 2012 and well into 2013, until The Dispatch disclosed the problem last September.
Alerted, the mayor reacted as any parent might: He ordered the fields closed and the games moved. The parks department is governed by an independent board, but the mayor holds the wallet.
Residents also should have been fully informed from the start. If recreation officials honestly believed that Saunders' fields were safe for a limited number of games, they could have told the parents that, too.
This way, parents could have decided for themselves if they were comfortable letting their children roll in, and likely ingest, that dirt. Which, it turns out, is contaminated with elevated levels of arsenic, lead and benzo(a)pyrene. Lead can impair neurological development in children. Arsenic is a poison. And benzo(a)pyrene is suspected of causing cancer.
There is an important lesson here. The next time the legislature restricts access to public records, think of those who live near Saunders Park, where the city found some arsenic levels 15 times over safe standards and then sat on that information for years. Without public records, they still wouldn't know of the danger.
Those records alerted a Dispatch reporter in September 2013 that a city consultant in October 2012 had suggested closing the park's ball fields to sports. The city instead restricted the number of games played there.
The newspaper's latest public-records request shows the parks department actually suspected the contamination in April 2011, when it hired a company to analyze surface-soil samples.
Several months later, that consultant wrote the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, asking if the levels of metals and dioxins in the park are sufficient enough "to create an environmental concern" or "initiate immediate response action."
Just what level of dioxin, lead or arsenic would most parents consider appropriate for their child? None. Even now, the park isn't secured; kids continue pushing through the orange mesh fence that the city put up last year.
Columbus needs to put up a secure barricade, because even more kids are headed toward the park: A new city pool is set to open on the southern edge of Saunders Park on July 13. While a previous report showed no contaminants in that section of the park, that report should be double-checked, to make sure it was comprehensive enough to rule out danger.