As Otterbein University attempts to turn contaminated land into a usable space, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency will hold a public meeting to inform residents about the project and its steps.

The issue focuses on a 40-acre plot that remains from a 110-acre gift made in the 1960s.

The university -- designated a college at the time -- received the land at 600 N. Spring Road from Kilgore Inc., who produced manufacture explosive and incendiary materials for the U.S. military and later fireworks and flares, according to a press release from the Ohio EPA.

The donation was made in 1962, at a time when Otterbein environmental projects manager Al Quagliotti said environmental standards were "quite different."

"When it was gifted to the university, the university was fortunate to have someone on their board of trustees who was a former army officer and had some idea what might be there," Quagliotti said.

"So before the university would accept it, they asked the army to come in and ... look at the site to see what was there. They took dozens of truckloads of material off the site," he said.

According to Quagliotti, Otterbein officials eventually determined that 70 acres of the site were clean, and "decided they needed to do something with this land."

They created the school's Austin E. Knowlton Center for Equine Science on the clean land.

Since then, he said, the university has been working to determine how to use the remaining 40 acres and what needs to be done with them.

Quagliotti said the school has received "interest" from home builders and other developers over the years, but now plans to use it for its own purposes, installing trails and creating other recreational uses on the site.

To do that, he said the university, along with the Ohio EPA, are doing a remedial investigation and feasibility study "to determine what's feasible to bring the site to whatever relevant standards" exist today.

According to a plan on the EPA website, epa.ohio.gov, the site has excessive amounts of a variety of substances, including arsenic, mercury and lead.

Quagliotti said those trace chemicals hold a "potential risk to the environment, meaning animals and plants," but not to humans in the surrounding areas.

"I've been involved in this project for almost 10 years," he said. "When I first got involved, the neighbors were worried about hazardous chemicals and toxic waste and all that. ... Since then, we've demonstrated that there is no movement of materials that would cause a risk to anybody living next to the site."

EPA spokeswoman Dina Pierce said "imminent hazards are very low or non-existent," but their presence still means the EPA needs to be involved.

"Soil and sediment contamination on site exceeds conservative ecological, residential and recreational risk levels," she said in an email. "These contaminants -- mostly metals -- need to be addressed so the property can be better used in the future and is protective of the environment."

According to its press release, the Ohio EPA's preferred alternative includes excavation and off-site disposal of 3,300 cubic yards of soil from five areas, excavation and off-site disposal of 75 cubic yards of contaminated sediment from two areas and entering an environmental covenant that limits use of the property to recreational and non-residential uses and prohibiting ground water use.

Quagliotti said he and the university "basically agree" with the EPA's assessments and plans, and he expects Otterbein to dig up a large amount of waste, transfer it to an approved landfill and use deed restrictions to ensure that residential uses are never approved for the contaminated areas.

But before work can take place, the EPA will hold at least one public information session, and will go through a design phase that lays out the cleanup plans with engineering studies and drawing.

The first meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 24, at the Center for Equine Science, 600 N. Spring Road. Ohio EPA representatives will make a presentation and answer questions for those concerned about the land or the project.

While the plan to make the site usable again is now officially in progress, Quagliotti said he isn't expecting it to move quickly.

"We could still be a year and a half to two years before everything is actually cleaned up," he said.

Additional information can be found at epa.ohio.gov. A copy of the preferred plan also has been provided to the Otterbein Courtright Memorial Library, 138 W. Main St., Westerville.

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