- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 15, 2003

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams yesterday ordered a review of how city agencies responded to the mercury-contamination incident at Ballou High School in Southeast.

The mayor assigned City Administrator Robert Bobb to oversee the review and submit a final report on how decisions were made and how well such agencies as D.C. Public Schools and the Metropolitan Police Department coordinated efforts.

Two of the biggest questions are who decided to evacuate Ballou’s roughly 1,200 students, and whether the evacuation help spread the mercury to the school playground, municipal buses and students’ homes.

The review will include an inquiry into how Ballou administrators keep track of potentially dangerous chemicals used in science classes and how students got hold of the mercury, said Tony Bullock, Mr. Williams’ spokesman.

Investigators say Ballou was contaminated Oct. 2 after a student took a vial of mercury from an unsecured chemistry lab and distributed it to classmates. The students spread the toxic metal inside the school, then unknowingly spread it further when their clothes and book bags contaminated a Metro bus and their homes.

The Environmental Protection Agency and D.C. Department of Health officials have screened about 1,200 people and 86 residences for mercury exposure. About 30 persons were displaced from their homes and are living in a hotel. Their expenses are being paid by the D.C. government.

“This is not about pointing fingers and placing blame,” Mr. Bullock said of the review, which he called an “after-action report.” He also said the mayor expects the agencies to learn from the incident.

“He wants them to go back and see what they did well and what they didn’t do well,” Mr. Bullock said.

The city’s departments of health, human services, and mental health were also involved in the incident and will be included in the review.

On Monday, Ballou students began their second week of school in temporary classrooms at Hart Middle School in Southeast and the former D.C. Convention Center in Northwest. Administrators said yesterday they still do not know when the school will reopen.

The Associated Press reported the cleanup effort for the school at 3401 Fourth St. SE is costing about $50,000 a day. That would equal about $400,000 as of yesterday. Contaminated flooring, carpeting and plumbing are being removed as part of the cleanup.

Health officials completed the testing this week of people exposed to the mercury and said fewer than a dozen have been referred to hospitals for additional tests. The officials also reported that nine houses have now tested positive for elevated levels of mercury and must be decontaminated.

Symptoms of mercury poisoning include shortness of breath, coughing, nausea and diarrhea, and usually occur within 24 hours of exposure.

To prevent future incidents of mercury poisoning, D.C. fire officials are encouraging residents to get rid of thermometers containing mercury. Under a program established last weekend, residents can drop off old thermometers at Engine 12 fire station at Fifth Street and Rhode Island Avenue NE from 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

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