Thursday, December 18, 2003

Ex-teacher arrested in mercury spill incident

The Associated Press

LOUISVILLE - A former biology teacher at Sacred Heart Academy was arrested for allegedly trying to clean a small amount of mercury that spilled without alerting school officials.

Dawn Marie Lechner, 34, was arrested Monday and charged with first-degree criminal mischief, a felony. She is accused of causing more than $64,000 worth of damage to a school laboratory by spilling the chemical and for waiting until a day after the Oct. 28 spill to notify school officials.

When mercury is spilled in a classroom, the students are supposed to be evacuated and the room sealed off, school and health officials said.

School officials and police said no students came in contact with the mercury, a silver-colored metallic chemical. If inhaled, it can cause serious health problems, including kidney or liver damage. If ingested, it can cause illness or death.

"No students or teachers were at risk," said Carrie Morrison, marketing director for Ursuline Campus Schools, the parent organization for Sacred Heart. "The spill was confined to one area, the lab."

According to a police report, the school spent more than $64,000 to hire an environmental services agency to clean up the spill.

The amount of mercury spilled was enough to cover only the bottom of a glass, said Art Smith, an on-scene coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency. But vapors in the chemistry classroom exceeded the recommended levels of exposure, he said.

The chemistry room at Sacred Heart was sealed off Oct. 29 and no mercury vapors were found outside that room, Smith said.

Lechner was released from Jefferson County Jail on her own recognizance Monday. She did not answer messages left at her home.

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