- The Washington Times - Friday, March 11, 2005

D.C. school officials yesterday closed Cardozo High School indefinitely after hazardous materials crews found mercury, acids and other chemicals improperly stored in classrooms.

Superintendent Clifford B. Janey said that among the discovered items were unsecured chemicals, some of them unlabeled, that were catalyzed, decomposed or aged beyond their shelf life and could potentially become unstable.

“These indeed were findings that gave me great concern,” he said. “We found problems at Cardozo High School that go well beyond the initial mission of identifying mercury and removing it from the building. The mission has been expanded because there are other chemicals that create safety and hazardous conditions.”

Hazardous materials were supposed to be removed from all city schools following an intentional spill in October 2003 at Ballou High School in Southeast that cost the District $1 million.

Cardozo, at 1300 Clifton St. NW, has essentially been closed since mercury was first discovered there Feb. 23 and will not be ready for reopening next week.

“It’s going to require time that we did not anticipate,” Mr. Janey said. “But we want to give the public reassurance when it comes time to reoccupy the building.”

Marcus Aquino, on-scene coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency, said yesterday that 24 more mercury thermometers were found in a second-floor chemistry laboratory. He said the most recent tests at the school have found no traces of mercury vapor.

The agency has been responsible for the cleanup since the first spill. Mercury pellets were also found March 2 and Sunday, but it remains uncertain whether the spills were new or overlooked.

Agency officials said the cleanup had cost $57,000 as of March 5.

Mr. Aquino also said the agency has agreed to a request by D.C. public school officials to tests every classroom, laboratory, library, storage area and student locker in the school.

Deputy Chief Kenneth Watts, the city’s fire marshal, said the recently discovered chemicals at Cardozo were in storage areas and classrooms.

He said they could be found in many U.S. high schools but some had been improperly stored together and could become unstable if they came into contact.

“We’re not exactly sure about the labeling of some of these chemicals,” he said. “We want to make sure that what is labeled on this particular container is indeed the contents of this container.”

Chief Watts said the D.C. fire department will inventory and evaluate science labs in all city public schools and develop a code-compliance checklist for school officials to maintain chemicals.

Mr. Janey said an implementation plan would be in place next week and that he is concerned the problems discovered at Cardozo are affecting other city schools.

“I have reason to believe we have not been careful; we have not been vigilant,” he said. “We have made assumptions about certain chemicals, including mercury. I believe mercury is present in some other buildings.”

Mr. Janey said the school’s 830 students would continue to attend classes at the University of the District of Columbia, where they have been going since Tuesday.

Mr. Janey said he had no idea about the cost for students to attend classes at the university.

“That’s not a particular issue of mine right now,” he said. “We’ll have to pay whatever the costs are to make sure that environment is conducive to our students.”

Three students have been charged with one count each of dumping a hazardous material, conspiring to dump a hazardous material, second-degree cruelty to children, second-degree theft and receiving stolen property.

The students charged have told police they obtained the mercury from the school’s science lab.

School officials at first denied those reports, saying all mercury had been removed from all schools after the Ballou spill. Mr. Janey said Metropolitan police continue to investigate the source of the mercury.

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