By Elbert Aull, Portland Press Herald Writer
SANFORD — A hazardous-waste expert incinerated a potentially explosive chemical in the woods near Sanford High School on Friday, a day after the material was found in a chemistry lab. The substance turned up Thursday afternoon during a routine chemical inspection. Fire officials closed a wing of the school and summoned the state Department of Environmental Protection.
No one was harmed, but the incident has school department officials asking for help monitoring chemicals in school, some of which become increasingly dangerous as they age.
The substance, an out-of-date jar of potassium metal, may have been overlooked in two recent chemical inspections, said school officials, who had no idea how long the material was in the lab.
“There are issues like this in schools, and we are aware of it,” said Superintendent John “Jack” Turcotte.
Turcotte said a chemical-hygiene consultant discovered the approximately 12-ounce jar in a locked storage closet during an inspection that took place hours after school let out for holiday break Thursday. School and fire officials cordoned off an entire wing of the school after the discovery in Room 205, he said.
About a dozen employees were at school when the compound was destroyed Friday, but no students were present, school officials said.
Potassium metal was once used in classroom experiments that have been replaced with instructional videos, he said. The compound has a shelf life of a few months, Turcotte said, and the sample found in Sanford had expired.
The substance, which looks like rock salt, becomes dangerous when it expires because the surrounding oil lubricant evaporates, said Assistant Fire Chief Jeff Rowe. Without the lubricant, potassium metal could react violently with water, creating a poisonous gas, or explode if it contacts moist air.
“If (the container) had been opened . . . it would have been a much bigger incident,” Rowe said.
The discovery came at a time when schools and state officials are working to rid chemistry labs throughout the state of expired and dangerous materials.
In November 2004, a Maine State Police bomb squad detonated three containers of decade-old ethyl ether in Kittery. The chemicals were found during an inventory of Traip Academy’s science labs and could have caused a major explosion under the right circumstances.
A recent program designed to rid Maine schools of mercury uncovered large amounts of hazardous waste in science labs, art and vocational classrooms, maintenance closets and nurses’s stations throughout the state.
State officials found chemicals that could be combined to make mustard gas in some schools and radioactive materials in more than a dozen others.
Reports from the program, which eventually ran out of funding, sparked two legislative proposals to revive the cleanup earlier this year. One calling for a $2 million bond question was killed in the Senate. Another proposed subsidizing the cleanup with a 30-cent tax on containers of general-use pesticide. In the end, the Legislature created a statewide task force to evaluate waste management and cleanup efforts at schools.
The task force will report to the Legislature next month, said Turcotte, who is a member.
Turcotte said he wants legislators to fund regional “environmental safety officers” who would assist schools with air quality, pest control and hazardous waste issues. He noted the dangerous chemical destroyed Friday may have been overlooked when the school was cleaned out two or three years ago. He added that his school sent a chemical inventory to the state this fall.
“Somebody’s missed this,” Turcotte said of the expired material. He said his school system charges teachers with monitoring chemicals, but has not yet appointed an official chemical-hygiene specialist as required by the state Department of Education.
Turcotte said he doesn’t expect disciplinary measures against the chemistry teachers.
Education Commissioner Susan Gendron said the state held a conference in October for school systems’s chemical-monitoring personnel. Asked about Turcotte’s suggestion for regional safety officers, Gendron stressed that any such program would require additional state funding.
“That would require legislative action, because I currently don’t have the staff,” she said.
Staff Writer Elbert Aull can be contacted at 324-4888 or at:firstname.lastname@example.org