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City and state officials knew as early as 2011 that Saunders Park contained elevated levels of arsenic and lead, according to surface-soil tests.
But Columbus Recreation and Parks decided to allow city youth soccer teams to play at the Near East Side park in 2012 and 2013.
"We didn't have complete information to know if it was a problem," said Alan McKnight, Recreation and Parks director. "We felt we need to do more study to understand what it meant."
The city is working on a plan to clean up the park, which is just south of the site of a fertilizer plant that closed in 1970. Recent tests found elevated levels of benzo(a)pyrene and arsenic. The arsenic in two locations was at levels 15 times higher than the state safety threshold.
Lead can impair neurological development in children. Arsenic is a poison, and benzo(a)pyrene is suspected of causing cancer.
Some who live in the neighborhood around the park say the city or state needs to go a step further and test their properties as well.
"My dad used to complain about it, the odor that was coming from it," said Debra Cousar, who lives across the street from the park. "We have breathed in all this stuff."
Mayor Michael B. Coleman ordered Recreation and Parks to move the soccer games in September after The Dispatch reported that contaminants had been found there during testing in 2012. Nine acres in the park have been closed to the public.
But records requested by The Dispatch show that the department had seen similar test results in 2011.
Recreation and Parks officials say they have been updating Columbus Public Health about the findings.
"We have reviewed their steps and were satisfied with their steps as they moved forward," said Jose Rodriguez, Columbus Public Health spokesman.
That doesn't satisfy area residents.
"It should have caused great alarm," said Tom Shelby, a Near East Area Commission member. "The city should have been proactive with this."
Ohio Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman Heather Lauer said the state has been taking soil samples from the former fertilizer plant site north of the park to see if it is indeed the source of the contaminants at the park. Additional investigation is needed, she said, to determine whether the agency should test soil in residents' yards.
On June 28 last year, Tom Mignery of Burgess & Niple, a consultant hired to do testing at the park, wrote the city that concentrations of arsenic and lead in soils "indicate lead arsenate was likely produced on the former Smith Agricultural Chemical property and disposed on portions of the current Saunders Park property."
Borden Chemical acquired the plant from Smith in 1964 and closed it in 1970.
Residents plan to meet with city and Ohio EPA officials, community leader Evelyn Cleveland said. "I've basically heard rumors about something wrong at the park for three years."
In April 2011, the city hired Resource International Inc. to analyze surface-soil samples. An Oct. 3, 2011, letter from Kristy Engel, a senior environmental specialist for Resource International, asked the Ohio EPA for technical assistance.
The letter never names Saunders Park, calling it instead "the subject property" and "a park" in a populated residential neighborhood, noting that it has a swimming pool and several soccer fields. McKnight said he didn't know why the park wasn't named.
The letter lists analyses of surface-soil samples that showed levels of arsenic and lead exceeding standards for unrestricted residential land.
"Are the amounts of metals and dioxins sufficient enough to create an environmental concern, and if so, do these amounts initiate an immediate response action?" the company asked the EPA. The state opened a file on the case.
On Nov. 21, 2011, Tina Mohn, a Recreation and Parks property manager, wrote a memo to McKnight and other officials that said: "Unfortunately, because the dioxin levels -- arsenic/lead -- do not have cut-and-dry limits, we will need to do more soil testing.
"We could limit access to the area, but since we don't know the exact extent, we'd have to restrict access to most of the area near the ball diamonds," she wrote.
And in August 2012, Mohn wrote in an email to Recreation and Parks officials and city attorneys that Burgess & Niple's Mignery "had mentioned we could move, as more of a PR measure, the soccer group to another field."
Assistant City Attorney Wendi Bootes responded, "I guess it's up to your department to determine whether or not to move the soccer group. ... The levels are acceptable for rec use."
The park remained open, and youth soccer games were played there in 2012 and 2013.
Burgess & Niple collected soil samples in 2012 and found elevated levels of arsenic and benzo(a)pyrene; it recommended in October 2012 that the park should not be used for more than 26 days a year and that no scheduled sports should be played there.
Work continues on the new pool at the southern edge of the park. It is scheduled to open July 13.
Cousar and her family knew Saunders Park well. Her parents, Talmadge and Bettie Cousar, bought their house on Graham Street across from the park in 1948 and raised nine children there.
Cousar still lives there with her two sons and her sister. Another sister lives next door.
Kids still play on the fields, she said, getting through the orange mesh fence the city erected last year that has fallen in some places.
As for the recent city testing, Cousar said, "They should have been doing this a long time ago."
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