School waits for state inspection of mercury spill

Cleanup work completed at South Carroll High

August 26, 2004|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Department of the Environment had not inspected South Carroll High School by late yesterday to determine whether it was safe for students and faculty after mercury from a broken barometer was found in a science room last week.

MDE officials did not return phone calls requesting an explanation of why the inspection had not been conducted.

Environmental contractor AEG Environmental finished the cleanup work yesterday in a science teachers' office, a custodial storage closet, a hallway and a stairway leading to the outside. The workers thought they were finished but had not received an all-clear from MDE officials, said George Phillips, principal of the school in southern Carroll County.

The workers "seem to feel confident that we will be OK," Phillips said.

Without approval from the MDE, an orientation for about 300 freshmen today will be limited to the ground floor of the two-story school, he said. MDE officials had assured Phillips that they would contact him at his home last night.

"We might have to cancel the tour of the school and schedule orientation sessions in the cafeteria," Phillips said. "We have to roll with the punches."

The school is scheduled to open Monday for about 1,150 students, Phillips said, and he is confident the ninth-graders will be able to find their way around.

MDE has to determine that any remaining mercury vapor is at a low enough level to permit people to occupy the areas affected. Elemental mercury generates a vapor that can be toxic at high levels and during prolonged exposure, MDE officials have said.

In a letter to parents, Phillips said someone apparently stored the barometer - which contains mercury in a glass tube - on a shelf in an area that was renovated several years ago, he said.

The stored equipment was long forgotten by the time mercury was removed from all county schools last year. Boxes placed atop the cabinet might have broken the barometer this summer, Phillips said.

A teacher found a few drops of mercury on a counter last week and alerted the custodian, who cleaned up the spill. School officials then decided that an environmental contractor should decontaminate the area.

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