Testimony at the Maine Legislature
by Jon Hinck, NRCM toxics project director
Good afternoon Senator Cowger, Representative Koffman and members of the Natural Resources Committee. My name is Jon Hinck. I am Staff Attorney and Toxics Project Director with the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM).
NRCM supports LD 1157 and encourages the Committee to vote “Ought to Pass” on this bill. The widespread presence of toxic, flammable and explosive materials in Maine schools demands an expeditious response. This bill appropriately provides for inventorying, collection and removal of such materials. We also support the bill’s provision for training of school personnel on purchasing, use and management of hazardous materials to avoid a recurrence of the problem faced today. Finally, NRCM supports the fee proposal. The small fee on products that give rise to environmental and health costs is a reasonable and effective way for this Committee to move this matter toward a satisfactory resolution.
Proper management of hazardous materials is increasingly standard operating procedure in work places as a means of maintaining occupational health and safety, preventing environmental degradation and avoiding liability. These matters are obviously no less critical in our schools where ironically too often due care is now dangerously lacking.
Children are particularly vulnerable to toxic hazards. As a health biologist might put it, children are sensitive receptors for toxic materials. Whatever beneficial role toxic, flammable and explosive materials may serve in some settings; we should do all that we can to help children avoid contact and exposure to these materials.
We recently learned that many Maine schools keep a large array of such hazardous materials onsite. Hazardous materials are found in: storage areas like the janitor’s closet; science labs; art classes; industrial engineering; automotive and wood shops. Moreover, hazardous materials in schools are too frequently stored without adequate security by personnel lacking in basic chemical safety training. Hazardous materials and properties, listed by school location, include:
Science Laboratories: Waste acids and alkalis (corrosive), solvents (toxic and ignitable), and metal salts (toxic). [Some hazardous and explosive wastes generated in science labs, such as picric acid and peroxidized ether, should only be handled and removed by such specially trained personnel, as emergency response teams.]
School Maintenance: Pesticides (toxic); paints (ignitable, toxic) and paint strippers (toxic); PCB-containing lighting ballasts (toxic); asbestos-containing wastes (toxic); and Cleaners (toxic, ignitable, corrosive).
Art and Drama Classes: Glass etchants (corrosive and toxic), paints (ignitable and
toxic), adhesives (ignitable and toxic), and canned aerosols (reactive).
Industrial Engineering/Automotive/Shop Classes: Waste oils, waste gasoline (ignitable and toxic); solvents (toxic, ignitable); batteries (corrosive, toxic); finishes (ignitable, toxic); paint strippers (toxic); adhesives (ignitable, toxic), and solders (toxic).
To date, only 18% of Maine schools have participated in a DEP pilot program to inventory and clean out hazardous materials. In these schools, DEP frequently found poorly stored or uncontrolled chemicals. Even where toxics were sequestered, students still had ready access to them. The possibility of vandalism or fire exacerbates the threat from hazardous materials stored in schools.
Some of what DEP found in Maine schools includes the following:
· 6,500 pounds and more than 1,000 gallons of hazardous waste.
· Stores of shock-sensitive chemicals, such as picric acid (Trinitrophenol), one of the most dangerous chemicals in use today.
· More than 700 pounds of mercury (Just one cup of liquid elemental mercury from a science lab in a Washington D.C. High School forced a school closure for 35 days, over 200 homes were tested for mercury, eleven homes and one common area were found to be contaminated and 16 families were displaced for weeks. Cleanup costs totaled $1,500,000.)
· High levels of mercury vapors in one school where mercury had been poured down a sink and another where mercury in a U-tube was left in a classroom for more than a decade.
· Bottles of extremely toxic pesticides and flammable oils at least three decades old, including:
–Copper Acetoarsenite or “Paris Green” a poisonous powder, and probable human carcinogen, used as an insecticide and wood preservative.
–Fenitrothion or “Pestroy,” a neurotoxic and endocrine disrupting organophosphate pesticide, possibly mixed with DDT.
· Old bottles of bromine and chlorine – chemicals used to make deadly mustard gas.
Of course, the situation varies in each school. The maintenance director in one school asked a DEP staffer, in the school on other business, to look at the science chemical store room. It turned out that this 10’s x 16’s storage area contained thousands of containers of chemicals stacked from floor to ceiling, most with only chemical notations written on them as identifiers. In the event of a chemical emergency, first responders have no idea what chemicals might be involved.
In another school, DEP discovered mercury containing equipment that according to the science teacher had not been moved in over 20 years. Close inspection showed that mercury had escaped from the equipment. DEP used a Lumex machine to read mercury levels and found mercury vapors levels in the classroom exceeding the state’s guidelines for safety.
Less than a year ago, Lawrence High School in Fairfield discovered two 500 ml containers of unstable Ethyl Ether. A State Police bomb squad was called in to detonate the discovery. As Waterville Fire Department Captain David LaFountain, chief of region 5 hazardous materials team, explained to a reporter: “Ether, as it gets old, all you need to do is twist the cap off the top and that produces friction that sets the ether off, and it’s explosive – it would take the roof right off the building.”
Obviously, Maine’s schools should not be left in this condition, but as of today, the DEP has no money in its budget for schools cleanout.
Recent experience in our schools is a reminder that the health and safety of state residents, especially our kids, remains a core responsibility of state government
Bond funding will remain uncertain, whereas this Committee has the authority and opportunity to pass out a bill to fully fund a school cleanout;
Bonds would create long-term indebtedness for a short term problem;
Bonds should be reserved for traditional needs, including for other pressing and ongoing educational needs;
A fee on pesticides shifts some costs of addressing a health and safety problem on products that create health and safety liabilities, as contrasted with other mechanisms that burden taxpayers generally;
There is a direct nexus between pesticides and cleanup and disposal costs arising both in Maine schools and local communities; and
A fee on pesticides would be easy to administer because distributors already report annual sales in Maine.
Now that we are apprised of the toxic, flammable and explosive hazards that currently exist throughout the State, the legislature needs to take swift and certain action. LD 1157 represents the best way to protect our schools, the students, teachers and staff. We urge you to pass this bill. Thank you.