Mercury will keep school closed |

Mercury will keep school closed

by Maggie O'Neill
Shannon Litz/The R-C They checked the school for mercury on Wednesday. The EPA came from San Francisco and they used various technologies to check the air and surfaces that may be contaminated. 'C Pod' was blocked off during the checks.

A Gardnerville Ranchos middle school will remain closed until next week as federal environmental officials test for mercury vapors released after a student brought a quarter-cup of the metal to school Tuesday.

Nearly 60 Pau-Wa-Lu Middle School students were decontaminated Tuesday after coming in contact with the potentially dangerous metal. The school was evacuated and closed.

Environmental Protection Agency officials will spend the rest of this week removing mercury vapor from the air.

John Soderman, Douglas County School District superintendent, warned at a 3 p.m. press conference Wednesday at the school that the situation could change if the amounts of liquid mercury found require further monitoring or more cleanup.

“Based on the information (we have), we don’t believe there to be any harm or imminent danger of a health risk,” he said. “I want to get that out at the very get go.

“We will not open school until Monday. That’s our target date. We won’t have better information (about that) until late Friday.”

Soderman said students whose clothing and possessions were confiscated due to their interactions with mercury Tuesday at the school would receive them back if health officials deem them safe. If not, the items could be discarded.

Soderman said school officials have interviewed the student who brought in the liquid mercury in a vial. He said staff conversations with the student allowed officials to quickly locate the places where the vial had been.

In addition to finding drops of liquid mercury in the students’ bus, officials located more at the school in “D” and “E pods, the gymnasium and cafeteria.

Soderman said school staff has the name of the students involved, but are not sure how the one student obtained the liquid mercury. He said that the student passed the liquid mercury around and shared it with others.

“We have a confidential list of those students and will deal with those if we need to,” he said.

Soon after officials responded at about 11 a.m. Tuesday, they tested for vaporized mercury.

Brad Lee, an official from the Nevada Department of Health, said the school took the right steps in its response to the contamination.

According to Steve Calahog of the emergency response team of the San Francisco office of the Environmental Protection Agency, assessment of air for mercury vapor will continue through today. Mercury has been found in the air, but the plan is to remove the vapors by Monday.

“Certainly for the school, (the amount in the air) is a lot,” Calahog said. “The risk is inhalation to the children. The effort is to mitigate exposure to everyone who comes by the school.

“Our sampling is to confirm the building is clean. We will follow up with another assessment. Our team is nearing completion. We are focusing on the gymnasium.”

He said liquid mercury begins to release vapor at indoor air temperatures. He added that as temperatures rise, more vapor is released.

Joline Johnson, a deputy administrator with the state Department of Environmental Protection, said that it is not illegal to possess mercury, which can be bought openly.

Safety Kleen of Sparks was called in to clean the school. Some of the carpet has been ripped up, said Soderman.

The missed days of school will count as snow days, he said.

“If something more rash happens, we’ll re-evaluate that stance,” Soderman said.

He said he believes students are mature enough “at the end of the day” to know that liquid mercury can be dangerous.

Contact Maggie O’Neill at mo’ or (775) 782-5121, ext. 214.