- Associated Press - Saturday, June 14, 2014

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - The Environmental Protection Agency has begun removing hazardous waste from an abandoned science building at Knoxville College.

Knoxville media report the federal agency expects the entire cleanup to last up to four weeks.

The facility was initially investigated last year by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation after taking materials to a scrapyard that set off radiation alarms. TDEC officials went to the school on June 5 to make sure hazardous materials had been properly secured, but then found “additional hazardous materials and hazardous conditions.”

After making the discovery, state officials immediately contacted the EPA, which sent crews on June 9 to being removing the materials.

EPA officials said the chemicals don’t pose an immediate threat, but could pose a risk if left to deteriorate further.

“TDEC observed many instances of incompatible and improper storage. The facility was unsecured and there were overt signs of trespassing and scrapping. Multiple windows were broken and the exterior doors were unsecured. The facility is directly adjacent to residential neighborhoods,” wrote James Pinkney with EPA Public Affairs.

“EPA crews entered the building and observed thousands of chemical bottles ranging in size from 5-gallons to milliliter volumes. There were 39 rooms and laboratories containing varied amounts of hazardous substances. Many of the containers are damaged, leaking, unlabeled, or otherwise compromised. Hazards include flammable, combustible, oxidizing, toxic, air reactive, corrosive, biological, and radioactive materials as well as incompatible storage. Crews also found elevated mercury levels throughout the building,” Pinkney wrote.

EPA’s on-site coordinator Kevin Eichinger said the agency would negotiate a payment from the cash-strapped college, which lost its accreditation and says it can’t pay for the cleanup. Federal tax documents show the school operated at a $525,000 deficit in 2011 and was $4.1 million in debt.

Eichinger said the chemicals were found in 39 rooms and include mostly acids and bases used for experiments, such as acetone and hydrochloric acid.

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