Polluted school closed until Tuesday

Classes won't resume at Pau-Wa-Lu Middle School until at least Tuesday, the day after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, while crews continue to clean up a mercury spill that could cost the district more than $100,000.

School officials, who had hoped to reopen the school today, said the date could change again, and encouraged parents to keep checking for updates.

The Gardnerville Ranchos middle school has been closed since Jan. 6, when it was contaminated by about a quarter-cup of liquid mercury brought on a bus by a ninth-grader.

Officials with the Douglas County School District, the Environment Protection Agency, the Nevada Department of Health and the Nevada Department of Environment Protection want to ensure that the level of liquid mercury vapor in the air drops below a 300-parts-per-trillion safety standard.

"We thought we had (reached those levels), but we didn't," Douglas County School Superintendent John Soderman said. "We took some measurements and found some in the 300 level that we have to deal with."

Those higher-than-expected levels resulted in the carpet being ripped out from the school's D pod Monday and Tuesday.

Soderman told parents at a meeting Monday evening they would not be reimbursed by the district for contaminated materials belonging to students that were discarded as hazardous waste.

"(The costs) will have to be borne by each individual parent," he said. "Our costs will be significant as it is. The estimate is $100,000; it could be higher."

Soderman said costs include ripping up the carpet, the possibility of losing a $70,000 bus on which the student rode with the mercury, and the possibility that the gym floor may need to be torn up.

He said the district has contacted insurance officials, who indicated coverage does not include toxic contamination.

Soderman told parents that student clothes and notebooks that showed a high reading of liquid mercury vapor were sent to a toxic waste facility.

"Anything (officials) felt was unsafe became toxic waste," he said. "We can't turn it loose to you and cause any risk to you or your family."

Students whose notes were discarded will be given the opportunity to get new ones before exams are given, according to Soderman. An exam schedule will be developed by staff once students return to school.

"There are still no reports of any health incidents in students or staff," he told parents. "In fact, information leads us to believe health isn't an issue for anyone.

"The bottom line is, we're in good shape for the shape we're in."

Contact Maggie O'Neill at mo'neill@recordcourier.com or 782-5121, ext. 214.


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