Cleanup work continues at EKU building; mercury spill detected at 2nd site

Cleanup of a mercury spill continued Friday at the Moore  Building on EKU's campus in Richmond. Ten to 12 tablespoons of the toxic heavy metal spilled from a barometer Thursday.
Cleanup of a mercury spill continued Friday at the Moore Building on EKU's campus in Richmond. Ten to 12 tablespoons of the toxic heavy metal spilled from a barometer Thursday. Greg Kocher | Staff

A private contractor continued Friday to clean up a mercury leak that shut down the Moore Building at Eastern Kentucky University on Thursday.

In addition, traces of mercury were detected in parts of the new, as-yet-unnamed science building where Moore Building equipment was moved, university spokesman Marc Whitt said Friday.

Mercury is toxic if ingested. A short-term, high dose of mercury might cause gastrointestinal damage, kidney failure, chills, nausea, difficulty breathing and lung irritation. Chronic effects include kidney damage, genetic damage and nervous system damage.

About 10 to 12 tablespoons of mercury were estimated to have been spilled, Whitt said. The majority of that amount was spilled in a first-floor storage room of the Moore Building, he said.

In addition, contamination was detected in the northeast elevator and loading dock of the Moore Building, Whitt said. Trace contamination also was found on the loading dock and third floor of the new science building, and on two moving trucks. But the greater concentrations were found in the Moore Building. Both buildings will remain closed until further notice.

Even a small amount of mercury can be hazardous because it vaporizes, said Art Smith, the on-scene coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, who arrived Friday morning at EKU.

"If you're in an enclosed space, it fills the space very quickly with mercury vapors," Smith said. "So the more mercury there is, the higher the concentrations can be."

The source of the spill was a barometer, an instrument that measures atmospheric pressure, Whitt said.

CMC Inc., a Nicholasville contractor that specializes in the abatement of hazardous materials, continued to work with EKU officials on the cleanup. CMC had ventilation equipment running at both buildings Friday, Whitt said.

"We are still experiencing readings of mercury vapor in the air, especially on the first floor," Whitt said in a news release. "The other floors are having more favorable readings."

Smith said the EKU spill, "in terms of an institutional setting, ranks as one of the larger cleanups we've had in the last few years."

Smith said the cleanup would take several days, "maybe approaching a week." Neither Smith nor EKU officials could estimate the cleanup's cost.

In October 2001, about 40 pounds of mercury spilled from a coffee can that was turned over accidentally in a Versailles home as its residents prepared to move. The abatement of that spill took more than a month. In a year, EPA responds to about a dozen mercury incidents throughout eight southeastern states alone, but Kentucky officials probably respond to more than that, Smith said.

To prevent the tracking of mercury in this week's spill to other locations, about 10 to 12 pairs of shoes and other personal articles, such as backpacks, were confiscated from people who had been in Moore, EKU officials said. Most of the items were returned after they were tested and determined to be within acceptable mercury limits set by public health agencies.

Built in 1968, the Moore Building has 10,000 square feet of space, including two lecture rooms. Final exams scheduled there on Thursday and Friday were moved to other locations, and other activities in the building were canceled, officials said. EKU's semester break begins Saturday.

Officials have asked anyone who might have been on the first floor of the Moore Building about 12:20 p.m. Thursday to contact campus police at (859) 622-1111.

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