(WBIR - Knoxville) Crews from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have arrived at Knoxville College to begin removing thousands of bottles of hazardous materials found in an abandoned science building on campus.
The A.K. Stewart Science Building is one of many vacant buildings at the struggling historic college. The building has been abandoned for several years, but many of the materials used for college-level science classes were never removed.
The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) initially investigated the situation after being contacted by a Knoxville scrapyard in 2013. TDEC says the scrap material set off radiation detector alarms at the scrapyard when scanning a shipment originating from Knoxville College.
"TDEC staff responded, identified the presence of a low level source of radiation, and assisted in the return of the material to Knoxville College. TDEC informed Knoxville College of need for proper disposition of material that day and, in a letter dated May 20, 2013, requested they dispose of the radiation source within 90 days," wrote Kelly Brockman in an email to 10News. "On May 31, 2013, TDEC staff visited the site to assess storage security and perform further on site assessment. TDEC worked with Knoxville College in an effort to dispose of the material from May 2013 through May 2014, making several visits to assess the security of the material."
On Thursday, June 5, officials from TDEC visited the school to confirm the hazardous material had been safely secured.
During this visit, "TDEC discovered additional hazardous materials and hazardous conditions, specifically in the A.K. Stewart Science Center. TDEC immediately notified the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is now leading up the investigation," wrote Brockman.
The A.K. Stewart building contained "multiple leaking and damaged containers of hazardous substances and hazardous wastes throughout the three story facility" on June 5, according to the EPA's office in Atlanta. TDEC then contacted the EPA. The city fire marshal then shut down all access to the building.
"TDEC observed many instances of incompatible and improper storage. The facility was unsecured and there were overt signs of trespassing and scrapping. Multiple windows were broken and the exterior doors were unsecured. The facility is directly adjacent to residential neighborhoods," wrote James Pinkney with EPA Public Affairs.
"EPA crews entered the building and observed thousands of chemical bottles ranging in size from 5-gallons to milliliter volumes. There were 39 rooms and laboratories containing varied amounts of hazardous substances. Many of the containers are damaged, leaking, unlabeled, or otherwise compromised. Hazards include flammable, combustible, oxidizing, toxic, air reactive, corrosive, biological, and radioactive materials as well as incompatible storage. Crews also found elevated mercury levels throughout the building," wrote Pinkney.
An on-scene coordinator with the EPA told 10News the air has been monitored and the surrounding residential neighborhoods are not being exposed to any toxic materials. The materials inside the building did not pose an immediate risk, but could have if left unattended and allowed to deteriorate further. As for the detection of radioactive materials, the EPA coordinator said it was low-risk material found in equipment used frequently in college science labs.
The EPA estimates the entire cleanup will take 3-4 weeks. The cash-strapped college lost its accreditation several years ago and cannot afford to pay for the cleanup. Therefore, the EPA says the federal government has agreed to fund the emergency cleanup to eliminate any risk to the community.
No one with the school or the EPA was available for official on-camera interviews Monday. The EPA says they are planning a joint announcement Tuesday with officials from the state, city, and Knoxville College.
The EPA has set up a web page devoted to information about the clean-up at Knoxville College.