- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Three weeks after Ballou High School was closed because of mercury contamination, health officials expressed optimism yesterday that it could be reopened before the end of the month. They also demanded that the school system account for all hazardous chemicals in public schools.

“We’re hoping for next week, but we’re not ready to set a date yet,” said Ron Lewis, deputy director of the District’s Department of Health.

Cleaning the damage has cost as much as $50,000 per day and the total will exceed $1 million, he said.

On Oct. 2, a student removed a vial containing as much as 8 ounces of elemental mercury from an unlocked storage cabinet in an unused chemistry laboratory at the school in Southeast. Within hours, the toxic liquid had been splattered on floors, walls and ceilings, and poured down drains in the building. More than 165 students and school staffers wound up with mercury on their clothing, skin or hair. The material was tracked onto at least one Metrobus and into the community.

Events at Ballou have led the Department of Health officials to seek a complete inventory of chemicals used in junior and senior high school science programs.

The Associated Press obtained a copy of a letter sent by the Health Department to the D.C. Public Schools System. It demands an inventory of hazardous chemicals, an estimate of the maximum amount of each chemical present at each school over the preceding calendar year, safety documentation on each chemical, and details on the storage of chemicals at each school.

“They have 90 days to provide those inventories,” said Theodore J. Gordon, senior deputy director for environmental health science and regulation, who signed the letter.

The directive applies to science programs at 36 schools, and health officials have said they may recommend removal of some chemicals.

D.C. government officials — unfamiliar with requirements for reducing mercury levels to federally accepted safe standards — continue to rely on Environmental Protection Agency recommendations for the cleanup. For more than a week, they have been conferring on the most efficient approach for eliminating traces of mercury from 11 contaminated homes.

“We still aren’t sure how to proceed,” Mr. Lewis said. That means 17 families — a total of 67 persons — continue to live in a hotel at the expense of the D.C. government. The entrances to their quarantined homes are sealed, though some windows have been left open to ventilate the buildings.

At Ballou, despite repeated scrubbings, carpeting and ceiling tiles had to be removed from at least three areas. Maintenance workers also replaced one sink in the building. Officials are unsure whether similar steps may have to be taken at the contaminated homes.

“No one will be allowed to return until we are sure it is safe,” Mr. Lewis said. More than 1,000 Ballou students have been attending classes at Hart Middle School and the old D.C. Convention Center.

Soon after the extent of the Ballou contamination became known, the Department of Health requested a complete inventory of chemicals kept for junior and senior high school science programs.

Sarah Woodhead, chief of facilities for the D.C. Public Schools System, said administrators are required to submit written inventories at the beginning and end of each school year, and update those records when necessary.

“Some schools have better records than others, they are not that consistent,” Miss Woodhead said earlier this week.

“They have 90 days to provide those inventories, and I put it in writing,” said Ted Gordon, deputy director of the Health Department’s environmental services division.

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