Editorial: City Right to Fence Off Contaminated Soccer Fields

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Copyright 2013 The Columbus Dispatch
All Rights Reserved

The Columbus Dispatch (Ohio)
September 28, 2013 Saturday
543 words
Better to play it safe;
City is right to order fences around contaminated parkland

Columbus recreation officials erred in failing to quickly close soccer fields after learning last year that the soil was laced with elevated levels of toxic substances. They said they figured kids probably wouldn't be on the land all that much.

Really? Saunders Park, near I-670 and Leonard Avenue, was unfenced and near homes.

Mayor Michael B. Coleman brought common sense to the situation last week, after being informed that a consultant's report showed arsenic and benzo(a)pyrene contamination. Coleman asked recreation officials if the soccer fields were safe. When he got qualifications and explanations rather than a clear "yes," he ordered the affected area closed.

The city now plans to fence at least some of the area and has posted "Park Area Closed" stock signs; these ought to be replaced by more-explicit warnings.

Neighbors have been suspicious for some time that the land was contaminated; the park sits near the old Smith Agricultural Chemical Company, closed around 1970. A community advocate last year relayed the concerns to Recreation and Parks Director Alan McKnight.

In an October 2012 report to the city, consultants Burgess & Niple confirmed these weren't imagined fears: It found elevated levels of the poisons. It recommended that use of the land be limited to 26 days -- with this caveat: "Since this is a park setting, it may be difficult to monitor the frequency of use by individual children and adults. As such, it is recommended that the ball fields not be used for scheduled sports at this time."

Yet, the city allowed a youth soccer league to play there this spring. McKnight said he'd reasoned that the fields were reserved only for a few hours; the league plays only six Saturdays. That made exposure "very limited. ...It's not more than 26 days."

Parents, however, don't wish to have their children knowingly exposed for any length of time to arsenic, which can cause nausea, diarrhea, abdominal pain, nervous-system disorders and death. Ditto for benzo(a)pyrene, a suspected cancer-causer.

And kids did go to the park to practice for games, a club director told a Dispatch reporter in an email after seeing the Sunday story.

The soccer games are now moved to Three Creeks Metro Park. No doubt, the commute is inconvenient, but so is illness. Children roll in dirt. Toddlers eat it.

The city opened the 14-acre park in around 1921 and is building a new swimming pool nearby. McKnight said the soil near the pool and playground, at the southern end of the park, is fine.

Cleanup will be costly and time-consuming, but the city has experience: The beautiful Scioto Audubon Park on the Whittier Peninsula was formerly home to the city's impounding lot, where oil and other containments had dripped into the soil for decades.

Columbus owns more than 15,000 acres of parkland and recreational waters, some of which were acquired well back into the unenlightened 1800s. It's not surprising to learn that one of its properties has environmental issues.

On the positive side, city recreation officials took neighborhood concerns seriously. Had they not investigated, children still would be playing this month on tainted fields. Parents sign up their children for soccer as healthful exercise.

Toxic substances aren't part of the bargain.

September 28, 2013

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