Tuesday, March 1, 2005

The federal government will pay the $150,000 cost of cleaning Cardozo High School after students intentionally contaminated the building with mercury, government officials said yesterday.

The money will come from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund program, which was started in 1980 to clean mines, old factories and other sites that pose environmental health risks.

The cleanup cost includes money for the 18 hazardous-material workers who spent 1,944 hours removing 3 ounces of mercury from Cardozo and the vapors and contaminated debris created by the mercury, said Wendy Jastremski, an EPA spokeswoman in Philadelphia.

Ms. Jastremski said the “around-the-clock” work included crews disposing of 20 drums of contaminated debris, which cost the agency $5,000.

The District will not have to pay because the Superfund includes money for local governments to clean contaminated public buildings such as Cardozo, at 13th and Clifton streets NW.

“We lucked out this time,” said Leila Abrar, spokeswoman for the D.C. Public Health Department.

The District paid about $1 million in the fall of 2003 when mercury contaminated Ballou High School in Southeast, which was closed a month.

In that case, students also spread mercury, about a cupful, throughout the community. The EPA paid about $150,000 to clean the school, Ms. Jastremski said. The D.C. government was responsible for cleaning 11 residences and the common area of an apartment building and for transporting students to other schools during the cleanup.

Even small amounts of the liquid-metal mercury and its vapors pose a health risk when in a confined space. No illnesses were reported in either the Ballou or Cardozo case.

D.C. schools were closed for snow Thursday and Monday. But Cardozo re-opened yesterday, five days after the mercury was discovered. Though the mercury amount was significantly less than that found in Ballou, officials said they could reopen Cardozo sooner because they were able to contain the mercury.

In the Cardozo case, a 15-year-old boy and a 16-year-old boy have been charged with dumping a hazardous material, cruelty to children and handling stolen property.

Their names have not been released because they are juveniles. The 16-year-old was arrested Sunday and the 15-year-old was arrested Monday. They were released into the custody of their mothers.

The 15-year-old suspect also tested positive for marijuana after he was arrested, prosecutors told the court yesterday.

Principal Reginald Ballard has repeatedly said any students responsible for the contamination would be suspended or expelled. Yesterday he repeated they should receive “the most severe punishment.”

In the Ballou case, a 10th-grader was charged with theft of the mercury, but the D.C. corporation counsel, which prosecutes juveniles, could not say yesterday how or if the student was punished.

Police investigators reportedly have said that the 16-year-old in the Cardozo case claimed to have found the mercury inside the school.

However, Mr. Ballard has repeatedly said all mercury was removed from school laboratories upon orders from public school officials after the Ballou incident. He said a consultant was hired to get rid of hazardous materials and that frequent inventories had confirmed the school was abiding by the restrictions.

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