Cardozo Senior High School will remain closed today after D.C. firefighters found mercury contamination on the Northwest campus yesterday -- the third time in 11 days. School officials were scrambling last night to come up with a plan for students to make up missed class time.
The surprise discovery of an additional 12 to 15 mercury droplets in the school's basement came just a day after the school was declared safe to reopen for classes today. Following tests conducted by officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the D.C. Health Department said Saturday that students could return to Cardozo.
Firefighters respond to Cardozo Senior High School after a custodial crew discovered pellets of mercury. Members of the fire department's hazardous materials team detected mercury vapor in the school's basement.
(Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
Alan Etter, a spokesman for the D.C. fire department, said a custodial crew commissioned by the school system had been wrapping up its work yesterday when it encountered the "BB-sized" droplets of mercury.
"It's a mystery why the product would be found here," said Etter, who noted that the building has been closed for days. He said that "given the fact that access is very restricted . . . it's likely leftover material." He also said firefighters had tested the basement previously and not found any traces of mercury.
Council member Jim Graham, whose Ward 1 district includes Cardozo, in the Columbia Heights neighborhood, said he was fielding calls from worried parents last night -- and grappling with his own disbelief. "This is either gross incompetence or the most willful criminal behavior," he said. "This is surreal. Either we're not really cleaning up the building, or someone is out to get us here."
The custodial crew of 17 people -- which was deep-cleaning the school before its planned reopening today -- called in the fire department about 3:30 p.m. A hazardous materials unit responded to the school and detected "modest levels of mercury vapor" in the basement.
Mercury droplets were found in a basement classroom and a hallway, and the school's entire basement has been declared a hot zone and is off-limits, Etter said.
All of the school workers involved in the custodial effort that led to yesterday's discovery were examined, and no health problems were found. One man's shoes showed traces of mercury and were confiscated.
D.C. police and EPA officials were investigating how the mercury ended up in the school and how it could have been overlooked in the two cleanups that had been conducted since Feb. 23. Long-term exposure to even small amounts of mercury can pose health hazards, but District health officials have said Cardozo families should not be worried about the effects of the spate of discoveries.
School Superintendent Clifford B. Janey is "deeply disappointed by today's discovery," said spokeswoman Roxanne Evans. "He was given full assurances that the school was free of mercury. This new discovery means our students are going to miss another important day of instruction."
Evans said it was "premature" to guess how long Cardozo's 830 students would be shut out of the building. Possible plans for making up lost time include holding classes at an alternate site or lengthening the school day for a period of time, she said.
"We have to consider all of our options," Evans said. As of Friday, Cardozo students had missed 21 instructional hours because of the mercury problem.
School security personnel are working with District police and the EPA, Evans said. She added: "We don't have any answers at this point about how there came to be another mercury discovery at the school. It's pretty puzzling to all of us."
Last week, mercury contamination was found on the shoes or clothing of 88 students or staff members. Screenings were done of those in the building, and no health problems were detected. Classes were canceled to allow time for cleanup.
Previously, seven people at Cardozo were affected. In connection with that contamination last month, two male students, ages 15 and 16, were charged, and a $150,000 cleanup was conducted, officials said.
According to officials, the older student -- charged with dumping a hazardous material, conspiracy to commit dumping, cruelty to children, theft and receiving stolen property -- said he found the mercury at school. But school officials had said all mercury was removed from D.C. schools in 2003 after a spill forced a lengthy closing at Ballou Senior High School.