Casper Tribune

Friday, December 01, 2000

School chemical safety program resurrected

By JOANNE BOWLBY

Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - Last year a Central High School teacher found a cake of radioactive yellow uranium stored in a file cabinet.

But a lack of uniform reporting guidelines kept the state Department of Education in the dark about the discovery.

The teacher was cleaning out a retired teacher's office, getting ready for his first semester at the school when he discovered a metal box labeled "radioactive."

"(The retired teacher) may have forgotten it was there," Central High science department head Jeff Ketcham said, adding it may have been stored there for as many as three decades.

The school district's safety coordinator called in hazardous materials experts to immediately remove the radioactive cake.

"They put a Geiger counter to it and it was radiating," Ketcham said. "It was hot."

But, he said, "where it was being stored it probably wouldn't have been a threat to anyone."

Despite handling the situation carefully, Laramie County School District 1 officials never notified the Department of Education.

"We are unaware of that incident," Department of Education health and safety director Gerry Maas said.

The lack of notification could have resulted from a confusion over who to notify.

"Most hazardous materials that are reported in cities and counties are reported to police or fire departments," state Department of Environmental Quality emergency responder Joe Hunter said.

Some teachers call city or county environmental health specialists when they find unknown or out-of-date chemicals. Others consult with the DEQ.

Since 1978 about six schools have contacted the DEQ to ask if chemicals found in their storage cabinets were considered hazardous. The DEQ offers a free review of chemical inventories to schools and businesses throughout the state.

In some districts teachers are responsible for taking care of chemical inventories and disposing of hazardous materials. In other districts, school science department heads monitor the chemicals.

In districts like Cheyenne, there is a safety coordinator or risk manager who oversees the disposal of chemicals.

A lack of mandatory, uniform reporting has allowed problems to slip through the cracks, according to a copyrighted story in the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle.

That wasn't the case a few years ago, when retired state science coordinator Bill Futrell was on the job. He inspected every high school in Wyoming about once a year and held safety seminars for teachers and department heads.

Futrell also wrote a manual for teachers entitled "Safety First in Science Teaching" that was last revised in 1989.

Maas, who joined the Department of Education recently, was not familiar with the booklet until last month when contacted by the Tribune-Eagle. He said he has reviewed its contents and would like to resurrect its use.

In reaction to many hazardous chemical violations found in science classrooms earlier this year, Colorado adopted new guidelines for the storage and disposal of chemicals used in science labs.

Maas and Hunter met Tuesday to develop a new safety program for teachers in Wyoming.

Hunter based the protocol almost entirely on Colorado's and Massachusetts' guidelines.

"We almost copied Colorado's plan. It's pretty effective," Hunter said.

When asked why he looked at Massachusetts, Hunter replied, "It was the only other one posted on the Internet."

Next month, Maas will call a committee together to review Futrell'2s decade-old booklet and test the draft state protocol in an attempt to "bulletproof" the system.

If all goes as planned, the protocol and booklet will be available to teachers through the department's Web site by the end of this school year.

But the program would not be mandatory and wouldn't require teachers to submit chemical inventories or be subject to inspection.

"The main purpose is to find out if there are any problems in schools right now," Hunter said.

When asked if not requiring mandatory inventory reporting or inspections would repeat the current problem, Maas said it will be up to school districts to decide if they want to implement the new guidelines.

"We don't want to play cop," he added.

"Most of our schools are really good about wanting and having a safe environment for their kids," Hunter said.

"If they follow this booklet, they're going to be fine," Maas said.

Adams would like to see the new guidelines be more than a voluntary program, but said any document the Department of Education can give teachers as a general guideline will be helpful.

"I don't think there is a lot of information that is available to (teachers)," he added.

Ketcham thinks even a voluntary program is "absolutely a good thing."