School, fire and environmental officials said last night that the District's Cardozo Senior High School will remain closed after the discovery of chemicals, including hydrochloric acid, that could pose a safety and health hazard.
Cardozo students, who have been displaced while the Environmental Protection Agency cleans up contamination at the Northwest Washington school, will continue attending classes at University of the District of Columbia next week to allow for an extended search of the 400,000-square-foot building.
An EPA investigator dons rubber shoes before going into Cardozo Senior High School, where hydrochloric acid and other chemicals were found.
(Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
Fire officials found the chemicals, described as mislabeled and unstable, in science labs yesterday, despite a systemwide effort in late 2003 and early 2004 to rid all schools of such materials after Ballou Senior High School in Southeast was contaminated by mercury. They said they also found 24 mercury thermometers in the labs.
Yesterday's discoveries prompted Superintendent Clifford B. Janey to order a complete inspection of all schools in the system.
"Cardozo is not ready to open next week," Janey said at a news conference. "We will be going into all classrooms, all laboratories, all storage areas and all the lockers. . . . We want to give the public that kind of assurance when the decision is made to reoccupy that it will be safe."
Fire Marshal Kenneth Watts said the department will establish a "code compliance check list" to guide inspectors in their examination of all D.C. public schools. The effort is aimed at heading off "any potential problem in the future," he said. "We intend on identifying chemicals to make sure there is no misuse and make sure everyone knows the potential for harm."
After the deliberate mercury spill at Ballou, which shuttered the building for one month, D.C. school officials in December 2003 launched an effort to rid the schools of mercury and other hazardous materials.
The system hired Thomas Custer to inventory hazardous materials at all schools and to supervise their removal. But school system officials began questioning the quality of Custer's work this week when EPA inspectors discovered six mercury vials in locked cabinets at Cardozo. Police have said three students arrested in the Feb. 23 mercury spill at Cardozo told them that they obtained the substance from a science lab at the school, an assertion school officials initially denied in light of the previous removal effort.
Custer, who now is director of science for the school system, did not return a telephone message last night. Earlier this week, he told a reporter that when he conducted his final inspection of Cardozo in March 2004, he "found no indication of mercury."
"I went into every room science was taught in," he said. "I believe we did a thorough job."
Janey said last night that Custer's effort "was not complete, not accurate and not meeting the standards that I would have conducted. . . . I have reason to believe we have not been careful, have not been vigilant."
Marcos A. Aquino, on-scene cleanup coordinator for EPA Region 3, said the agency has completed its latest round of air sampling at Cardozo. Besides checking areas where spills occurred, he said, EPA crews screened places that had been inaccessible, including locked cabinets, drawers and closets.
The D.C. Department of Health will review the results today, he said.
"We do not detect mercury vapors in the building," Aquino said. The Health Department, he said, "will render an opinion on the data and make a recommendation" on when to reopen the building.
The reopening, he added, would follow an inspection of the lockers. This week, EPA crews found shoes and clothing with elevated levels of mercury in three lockers.
Referring to the citywide inspection effort, Janey said, "Our strategic objective is to make sure we're utilizing proper protocol in managing and storing chemicals."
"We're clearly doing what we're supposed to be doing," he said, referring to the new inventory of potentially dangerous materials. "We're doing it deeply and thoroughly."