More MS news articles for Oct 2001

Kern Place unfazed by soil, disease risks

Monday, October 15, 2001
Lou Rutigliano
El Paso Times

First came reports of contaminated soil in Arroyo Park.

Then, news of high rates of multiple sclerosis among the alumni of Mesita Elementary School.

But in Kern Place, a neighborhood united in the past against foes ranging from developers to the parked cars of Sun Bowl visitors, the average response to the potential health threats has been little more than a shrug.

"I'm very curious, but certainly not panicked," said Gloria Ambler, a member of the Kern Place Association's Board of Directors.

In August, the Environmental Protection Agency announced the possibility of risks from toxic heavy metals in the soil of Arroyo Park. But the Kern Place Association's newsletter didn't mention it.

Last week, the Texas Department of Health announced that former students at Mesita Elementary in the Kern area had a higher-than-average rate of multiple sclerosis.

The next day, most Mesita parents who were picking up their children at school said they hadn't heard of the results or the two-year study that preceded them.

"I'm not too worried about it," said Olympia Schwartz, who has two daughters attending Mesita and a husband who attended the school. "There hasn't been a lot of publicity."

Kern Place residents said scientific technicalities that explain how contaminated soil is not dangerous -- the state health department reported no public danger at the park -- and the medical mysteries surrounding multiple sclerosis rendered many residents unsure of an opinion.

"My assumption is that my colleagues in the appropriate disciplines are not worried about the quality of research already conducted," said Melvin Straus, who has lived in Kern Place for 40 years. "I don't know enough to be apprehensive or dissatisfied."

Despite that consensus, visceral reactions to the news occasionally surface.

Debbie Wilson, who has owned a home across from Arroyo Park for three years, said she's not sure she'll enroll her 3-year-old daughter at nearby Mesita.

"I'm really concerned," Wilson said. "If it's going to get in Arroyo, it will get in the rest of the neighborhood."

Like others in the area, the Wilsons didn't stop using Arroyo Park and don't plan to. But, whether it's warranted or not, hands are being washed more thoroughly in their household these days.

EPA officials said more soil testing is planned, although whether any residential properties -- in Kern Place or elsewhere -- will be among the sites the agency will investigate is unknown.

Realtors have not seen any decline in property values or increasing demand among residents to move away, said Michael Bray, president of the Greater El Paso Association of Realtors, and a Kern Place resident.

"I can find no indication suggesting that news of environmental concerns have affected home sales in the Kern area," he said. "All of the numbers are trending up and generally in keeping with the overall trends in El Paso."

If anything, Bray and others said, it's too early and there are too many unknowns to provoke a reaction from the neighborhood.

"There are people perfectly willing to agitate, and I'm one of them," Straus said. "If I had colleagues who said this was a poor piece of investigation and we could be in jeopardy, I would."

Lou Rutigliano may be reached at

Copyright © 2001 El Paso Times