Parents: Mercury spill poorly handled at Richmond middle school

Posted at 12:09 AM, Oct 12, 2012
and last updated 2012-10-13 16:55:14-04

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) - Parents have been demanding answers over a toxic spill incident at a local middle school, and they still haven’t gotten solid answers.

"It's just exhausting," Beth Bortz, a concerned parent, said.

For nearly two weeks a group of parents have been demanding answers from Richmond Public School leaders about an incident that they believe occurred at the end of last school year.

"I've asked the school for answers and haven't gotten any," Bortz said.

The parents are asking about a mercury spill after a glass thermometer was broken in a science lab at Lucille Brown Middle School. Parents want to know how the toxic chemical was cleaned up and why they weren’t told about it.

"That clearly concerned me to think there was potential for mercury to be on surface of the lab table where my daughter sat," Bortz said.

Bortz just recently learned of the May incident from other parents and students from the school, as well as a substitute teacher present at the time of the incident. All have claimed that a janitor wiped up the metallic liquid and then taped a tarp over the desk where it stayed for the remaining three weeks of the school year.

"That's unacceptable," Richmond School Board member Kim Gray said of the handling of the incident.

While health risks are relatively low for mercury exposure, Gray points to the Environmental Protection Agency’s rules which indicate that the classroom should have been evacuated and ventilated for 24 hours after the spill.

The rules also spell out that a detailed cleaning process must occur and requires that a call be made to report the incident to the local health department.

Gray claimed she has spoken with Andy Hawkins, Chief Operating Officer of Richmond Public Schools, about the incident and that he has indicated that staff at Lucile Brown will undergo training to ensure this process does not happen again.

"All of our staff needs to be trained in case an incident like this happens again," Gray said.

Richmond Public Schools Communications Officer Felicia Cosby released the following statement to CBS 6 News on Friday, Oct. 12:

"Richmond Public Schools uses only alcohol-based thermometers and digital probes in its classrooms. Five years ago, the district implemented a plan to remove all substances and materials no longer approved for classroom use. Periodic monitoring of classroom materials is ongoing. Furthermore, all custodians have been trained and many have been certified in hazardous waste removal in the event such an occurrence should happen, and conduct themselves accordingly. We apologize for the angst this situation may have caused some of our parents at Brown middle school. Again, we understand the concerns of our parents, take them very seriously and want to ensure them that student safety is among our top priorities."