Chemical concerns clear high school classrooms

Some old science lab chemicals in a storage room caused a stir at Oak Harbor High School Friday, but any potential for threat was quickly mitigated.

Science teachers performing an inventory of supplies over the course of a week had found some previously undiscovered and outdated chemicals, and alerted Principal Dick Devlin, who then contacted the district’s maintenance department. A maintenance department employee began to work on finding a way to properly dispose of the chemicals.

Meanwhile, inventory continued Thursday afternoon when teachers in the storage room found some of the chemicals creating a fog. They left the room and told Devlin about the fog Friday morning.

“They came to me the next morning first thing and we immediately locked the room,” Devlin said.

A team consisting of Devlin, Executive Director for Operations Bruce Worley, Maintenance Director Bill Armbrust and Oak Harbor Fire Department Battalion Chief Ray Merrill met with school superintendent Rick Schulte Friday morning about the finding of the unknown chemicals.

Some of the chemicals were “extremely old,” some were mislabeled and some were not marked at all, Merrill said Tuesday. The fact that some of the chemicals were unidentified warranted taking precautionary measures, Merrill said. By late morning Friday, staff and several hundred students were evacuated from the B-wing and spent the remainder of the day in the high school gym.

The district called in a private hazardous materials disposal company, Heritage Environmental of Olympia, to come in and test the chemicals and to stabilize anything volatile. A separate company will handle proper disposal.

Classes resumed in the B-wing Monday, as Heritage had stabilized all chemicals.

At one point school staff members thought that one of the unidentified chemicals could have been crystaliized ether, which Merrill said is explosive. Tests later Friday revealed the suspect chemical to be a sodium compound and not dangerous, Devlin said.

Although school staff had performed a “comprehensive inventory a couple of years ago,” David Peterson, assistant superintendent, said Tuesday, the old chemicals must have been overlooked at that time. Some of the cardboard boxes containing the chemicals had labels dating back to the 1940s.

Some of the chemicals included formaldehyde, ferrous cyanide, magnesium cyanide, ammonium nitrate and nitric acid.

“There were things in there that we no longer want in schools,” Peterson said.

District officials say the chemicals were stable sitting on shelves undisturbed.

Merrill said that people can find similar situations in their own homes. Chemicals alone may not be a threat, but if mixed together can be volatile.

“You can go to (the hardware store) today and do the same thing,” Merrill said. For example brake fluid and pool chemicals, when used appropriately for their designated purposes, do not pose a threat. But, mix the two together and they can spontaneously combust.

“I think the school district did the right thing when they found out about the chemicals,” Merrill said.

Meanwhile the high school is revising the way it keeps track of chemicals, Devlin said.

Merrill advised the district to get rid of all the chemicals and to start fresh with an accurate inventory system which documents all purchases in a log book. Additionally, the school will ensure proper storage and labeling of all chemicals, as well as the marking of containers with expiration dates.

The hazardous material handling and disposal is estimated to cost about $5,000, Peterson said, which is less than the district’s insurance deductible.

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