New Mercury Discovered in Cardozo Labs

"I want to get back to our regular classes," Cardozo junior Foday Pessima, 17, says. Cardozo students are at the University of the District of Columbia until their campus is declared safe. (Robert A. Reeder - The Washington Post)
By Susan Levine and V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 10, 2005

Six containers of mercury have been found in locked science-lab cabinets at Cardozo Senior High School, a federal official said yesterday, despite assurances by D.C. school administrators that the substance was removed from every District high school in 2003.

The Environmental Protection Agency's on-scene coordinator said the closed containers -- which are no more than several inches high -- were discovered in three laboratory classrooms as EPA inspectors worked Tuesday evening through yesterday morning to clean the Northwest Washington school and search for the source of repeated mercury contamination of the building.

The coordinator, Marcos Aquino, could not say how much mercury they contained, but he noted that they were in rooms where mercury had not been detected during air screening and that they apparently had not emitted any vapors.

Cardozo Principal Reginald Ballard Jr. expressed surprise about the discovery, reiterating that he thought mercury no longer was being stored in the building. He said he did not know what the locked cabinets were used for or whether faculty or students had access to them. He blamed the problem on the school system, which he said was "responsible for removing" the mercury.

A mercury spill at Ballou Senior High in Southeast in 2003 prompted D.C. school officials to mandate the removal of mercury from every campus in the city. The school system hired a contractor to assist in the effort.

Yesterday, Superintendent Clifford B. Janey ordered a new inspection of all schools to ensure that no additional mercury had been left behind.

"As a result of recent incidents, it is evident that the identification and removal of hazardous materials was not complete after the mercury spills at Ballou High School in October 2003," Janey said in a statement. "I have directed that all principals make a complete search of each building to locate and safely collect all chemicals and hazardous materials that are suspect [and] not part of the science curriculum."

EPA is conducting its third cleanup of Cardozo since mercury was discovered Feb. 23 in multiple locations inside the school. Last week, more mercury was found in a third-floor stairwell, and on Sunday, drops were located in the basement.

Whether the containers in the locked cabinets could be implicated in Cardozo's contamination is unclear. According to police, the three students arrested in the Feb. 23 contamination have said they took a vial of mercury from a school science lab.

An unspecified number of other containers in the cabinets contained "chemicals of concern," which, while applicable for certain science experiments, "could be hazardous if used inappropriately," Aquino said.

Thomas Custer was the consultant hired by the school system in December 2003 to make an inventory of all the mercury and other hazardous materials in the schools and to oversee their removal. Custer said yesterday that he found no mercury at Cardozo when he conducted his final inspection of its science labs.

"When I did my inspection March 3 [2004], I found no indication of mercury," said Custer, who now serves as director of science for the school system.

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