- The Washington Times - Monday, October 27, 2003

D.C. police yesterday arrested a 16-year-old Ballou High School student accused of stealing a vial of mercury from an unlocked lab and sharing it with other students who then contaminated the school, police said.

The student, who has not been identified because he is a juvenile, was charged with theft and is expected to be arraigned today.

Police said the student, a resident of Southeast, was arrested by 7th District detectives and members of the department’s environmental-crimes unit at 2:15 p.m. yesterday. The investigation is ongoing.

Meanwhile,D.C. public school and health officials huddled for most of the day yesterday to determine how soon the school at 3401 Fourth St. SE can reopen following the Oct. 2 mercury spill and round-the-clock cleanup by crews from the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Everyone has been in meetings all day to discuss whether or not the school will reopen tomorrow. Then everyone must be briefed when the test results come back before a decision can be made to allow students and staff back into the building,” said Prenell Neely, spokeswoman for D.C. Public Schools.

“Sometime this week, we’re supposed to be having a parent’s forum,” said D.C. Public Schools spokesman Barrington Salmon, indicating that might give officials a chance to clarify when Ballou will be reopened. The status of that forum is tentative, as a time, date and location have not been determined.

The EPA has been working 24 hours a day to decontaminate the school in Southeast. Officials said at least one sink in the building has been replaced and three areas of the school have had carpet and ceiling tile replaced.

Since the school was evacuated more than three weeks ago, its 1,300 students have been attending classes at Hart Middle School in Southeast and the old Washington Convention Center in Northwest. They have been participating in “Schools Without Walls,” a program implemented by the D.C. school board to make the best of the situation.

At the onset of the program, school board member William Lockeridge said, “The program will allow our students to take advantage of the history around them and give them expanded knowledge found in museums and national monuments.”

The EPA screened about 1,200 people and 86 homes for elevated levels of mercury after Ballou students brought the toxic metal onto a Metro bus and to many of their homes on their clothing and book bags. Seventeen families were displaced. Two families returned to their homes over the weekend, and the rest are still staying in a hotel at the D.C. government’s expense.

Briant Coleman, spokesman for the D.C. Department of Health, said as of Thursday “there still has not been any one person to exhibit signs of mercury poisoning.”

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

Health officials have taken several steps to prevent future incidents of mercury contamination of the type that occurred at Ballou.

The Department of Health has asked D.C. Public Schools to provide an inventory of all its hazardous chemicals along with an estimate of how much of each chemical is present at each location. School officials also are being asked to show safety documentation along with details on the storage of such chemicals.

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

D.C. residents are being encouraged to drop off old thermometers at Engine 12 fire station at Fifth Street and Rhode Island Avenue NW under a program started by the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.

D.C. government officials also have been tracking the expense of the testing, caring for the displaced families and cleanup, as well as the use of the old convention center, and estimate that the entire process is costing the city up to $50,000 per day.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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