Return To River Valley: Some Families Still Believe School Grounds Led To Cancer

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UPDATED: Tuesday May 14, 2013 5:46 PM

In the late 1990s in Marion, parents of students at River Valley schools questioned high cancer rates among the graduates.

The high school and middle school were built on a former army depot site where students could have been exposed to more than 75 hazardous contaminants.

The state health department did not dismiss the concerns but insisted that there was no direct evidence the chemicals caused the cancer.

Two of the families recently told 10TV about their journey since getting the devastating news more than a decade ago.

“My appointment was at 9 that morning, and by 9 that night, I was sitting WITH the oncologist being diagnosed with leukemia,” recalled Jami Sager.

While Sager was able to beat cancer, others did not.

Christine McCann misses her husband’s laughter. Her husband, Darrin Keirns, died 12 years ago. It was less than a year after the birth of their daughter, Samantha.

His parents had to bury their son much too soon.

“He asked me one time, he said ‘Why me? I don't smoke or drink, and I'm young and I have a new family - why me, dad?” said Darrell Keirns.

Darrin Keirns was one of several River Valley High School graduates diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in the late 1990s. Other graduates developed Leukemia and other forms of cancer.

The school grounds sits on part of a former military depot where chemical waste was dumped for years.

The Ohio Department of Health was urged by families to conduct an extensive study.

“There were a lot of people in his class that got cancer. What from, I don't know, but it always makes you wonder if it was the stuff that was out there in the fields,” explained Darrell Keirns.

Jamie Sager was also a River Valley graduate diagnosed with cancer in the 1990s. It is now in remission.

"I played in the outfield and my feet were always wet, but we just chalked it up to bad drainage or whatever, no one ever really thought about it, but I’m not sure what I was walking through now,” said Sager.

Sager also feels that students were in imminent danger.

Residents asked questions. Was there a link between the diseases and the school grounds? Could it have been a cancer cluster with a definitive cause?

Dr. David Brancato with the Army Corps of Engineers participated in the four year study.

“Was this area ever unsafe,” asked 10TV’s Ashleigh Barry.

“As far as the agencies collectively determined, the answer is no,” said Brancato.

Brancato said health officials were simply unable to determine whether the toxic contamination in the soil contributed to the high rate of leukemia among graduates.

The families that lived through it question those findings.

Christine McCann feels the government is responsible in some way.

“Absolutely, I think so, I mean they used that as a chemical waste dump, and then they built a school on top of it. How can you not?  Of course, they're responsible,” said McCann.

The families fought to have both River Valley Middle School and High School shut down for good.

In 2003, the district relocated the schools three miles away. Since then, the health department has not received any reports of cancer clusters among graduates.

Samantha Keirns-McCann has videos that her father made before he died, but she wishes she could have known him.

"I'd probably tell him that I love him, and that I know everything is going to be o.k. without him,” said Samantha.

Jami Sager and her husband adopted a daughter four years ago. Jamie has been in remission for years.

But she said that she lives with the fear every day.

“I want to be here to see (my daughter) graduate, get married, and I don’t know,” said Sager.

Health officials said the old River Valley Middle and High Schools are now being used as private warehouse facilities.

The grounds are tested for contaminants every five years. The next review is scheduled for May 2014.

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