- The Washington Times - Monday, October 13, 2003

Contractors hired to decontaminate Ballou High School in Southeast continued to search for traces of mercury yesterday. But as many government offices remained closed for the Columbus Day holiday, officials involved in the incident were trying to determine who should oversee the cleanup of homes and apartments that also were contaminated.

“We’re trying to decide which agency is going to take the lead on it,” said Briant Coleman, a spokesman for the D.C. Department of Health. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has been involved in the investigation of the incident since Oct. 3, but there apparently is some question whether the EPA will handle the decontamination of eight houses and apartments where testing has found unsafe levels of mercury. More than 110 others remain to be tested.

“We’ve contacted everyone who we feel needs to be contacted,” Mr. Coleman said. Since Oct. 6, more than 1,200 people have been screened for mercury exposure. Fewer than a dozen have been referred to hospitals for additional tests.

The mercury, which was stored in an unlocked cabinet inside an unused chemistry lab at Ballou, was removed. A student admitted to investigators that he had taken the substance. Witnesses said the mercury was spilled, splattered or poured in several areas of the school before the fire department was notified.

“Our environmental crimes unit is still investigating the case,” said D.C. police spokesman Sgt. Joe Gentile, indicating that criminal charges are being considered.

Legal and policy issues also remain as more than 1,000 students who attend Ballou begin a second week of classes in temporary facilities today. About 30 people displaced from their homes are living in a hotel. The D.C. government is picking up their expenses.

“There are a lot of different possible parties that one could sue,” said Sonia M. Suter, a law professor at George Washington University Law School specializing in liability law.

The targets could include the students who spread the mercury, the teacher charged with controlling the mercury, or D.C. Public Schools as an entity of the city government, Miss Suter said.

“I think the city is facing some exposure here,” said Roger Schechter, another liability law professor at GW. Although the D.C. school system has a policy requiring that potentially hazardous chemicals be secured unless they are properly supervised, “the government is not supposed to get out from under its policies just because it has careless employees,” Mr. Schechter said.

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