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Minnesota Lab Cleanup Called Success

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Driving vans, trucks, and cars, representatives from about 60 Minnesota school districts converged on a site in suburban St. Paul 10 days ago with nearly 1,000 gallons of unwanted and extremely hazardous chemicals.

The schools officials, who were taking part in an unprecedented, one-day statewide purge of toxic substances from the science facilities of junior and senior high schools, arrived at 10- to 15-minute intervals at an open area within an 8,000-acre tract of land owned by the University of Minnesota. There, they turned over the dangerous substances--including known carcinogens such as benzene, benzidine, and asbestos, as well as acutely toxic chemicals such as potassium cyanide and arsenic trioxide--to heavily-protected waste-disposal experts from the university. University officials had agreed to incorporate the schools' chemicals into the institution's own large hazardous-waste disposal system.

Transferring Chemicals

The collection area, set up in a field adjacent to an access road leading to an abandoned World War II munitions factory, was covered with plastic. Safety equipment--including fire extinguishers, portable "showers," and a university fire truck--was on hand as University of Minnesota waste disposal experts wearing gas masks and rubber suits started the process of sorting and transferring the chemicals to 55-gallon drums.

The disposal operation--which involved the close cooperation of the State Education Department, the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and local school districts--had not been announced publicly for fear of provoking protest by citizens.

There were no accidents, reported the Minnesota Department of Education's science specialist, Richard C. Clark, who organized the cleanup operation.

Mr. Clark said the large-scale cooperative effort--known as "Chemical Safety Day"--was initiated a year ago, after visits to school science facilities throughout Minnesota revealed that many schools had supplies of unneeded and outdated hazardous chemicals that, because of the high cost of commercial disposal and stringent state and federal regulations, they were unable to dispose of legally.

Many of these substances, Mr. Clark said, were found to be stored in unmarked or damaged containers in unsafe areas. Many of the chemicals, he added, posed potentially severe threats to the health and safety of teachers and students.

Some 60 school districts--15 percent of the state's total--took part in the cleanup operation. Mr. Clark said that, considering the magnitude of the problem in the state, he was disappointed more districts did not participate.

The science specialist said he plans to meet next month with representatives of the Minnesota Attorney General's Office to discuss a statewide program to remove potentially explosive chemicals from the state's schools. Explosives were excluded from the Nov. 12 disposal operation, Mr. Clark said, for safety reasons. But, he added, the presence of potentially explosive substances in school science facilities is a "serious problem."

Once the materials collected 10 days ago have been sorted and packed in 55-gallon drums, they will be transported, in keeping with state and federal hazardous-waste regulations, to a licensed landfill in Nevada. The entire process will take three months, says Robert A. Silvagni, a waste-disposal official for the University of Minnesota who supervised the cleanup operation.

The schools will pay $8,000--approximately $8 per gallon--to the University of Minnesota to cover the cost of the disposal operation.

While the disposal operation received the endorsement of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the president's office of the University of Minnesota, and the mayor of Rosemount, the community in which the collection took place, it was not made known to local residents and was conducted outside the jurisdiction of both state and federal hazardous-waste disposal regulations.

(The participating schools' representatives were, however, given instructions to package their toxic chemicals in accordance with U.S. Department of Transportation regulations.)

Officials of the U.S. Environmental Protec-tion Agency, authorized by federal law to oversee the disposal of toxic substances, were not contacted, according to Michael E. Sommer, a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency official.

The schools participating in the cleanup operation avoided having to comply with "costly and time-consuming" state and federal hazardous-waste disposal regulations--and stayed within the law--said Mr. Sommer, by declaring their hazardous substances "excess" (unwanted but usable chemicals) rather than "waste."

Mr. Silvagni of the University of Minnesota said that "less than 1 percent" of the schools' chemicals were saved for reuse by the university.

The disposal operation was "terrific," said Joseph L. Primo, science consultant with the Minneapolis school district, which unloaded nearly 125 pounds of unwanted chemicals as part of the cleanup.

"It helped us solve a problem that we have been unable to do anything about in the past," he said. "We have been caught in a Catch-22. We had these dangerous chemicals that we knew we shouldn't have. But we had no legal way of getting rid of them. Private disposal companies required us to use a different 55-gallon drum for practically every chemical, making these companies way too expensive for us to afford. And the science teachers in our district lacked disposal expertise on a chemical-by-chemical basis."

(Prior to the disposal operation on Nov. 12, each school or district submitted a list of its chemicals to University of Minnesota waste officials, who advised them on how to dispose of each. Chemical Safety Day was the culmination of that effort.)

"This cost us $2,500," Mr. Primo commented, "but if we had gone to a commercial disposal company, it would have cost at least twice as much.

"I was impressed by the safety procedures [observed by the university waste-disposal officials.] There was a very serious tone about the operation. It was no lark."

Mr. Primo and other experts say that the problem of inadequate storage and disposal of dangerous chemicals from school science facilities has always existed, but only in recent years, with improved understanding of the health hazards posed by certain chemicals, have people begun to respond to it.

Hazardous-waste experts who are familiar with the situation in the nation's schools say there is a widespread lack of expertise among science teachers on proper hazardous-waste disposal procedures.

This deficiency, experts believe, can be attributed to the failure of education schools to address safety issues, the lack of training programs in many states, and the increasing number of teachers uncertified in chemistry who are teaching the subject as a result of acute shortages in many school districts around the country. (See Databank below.)

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