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Chemical reaction causes after-school evacuation at technical center

By Scott Mitchell Johnson Presque Isle Star-Herald, Special to the BDN

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — A chemical reaction in the aquatics lab at the Presque Isle Regional Career and Technical Center recently caused the building to be temporarily evacuated while Presque Isle firefighters and a Department of Environmental Protection worker responded to the situation.

The incident was reported at 3:38 p.m. on Nov. 30.

“In our fish lab downstairs, we have a number of chemicals that we use for cleaning and treating the water,” said Larry Fox, director of the center. “One of those, which has an acid-based compound, was used [the day before] to do some work.” A Clorox bleach solution used to mop the floor of the lab after school on Nov. 30 came in contact with residue of the acid compound causing a reaction.

“Whenever we use these compounds, it’s just our staff that use those; students don’t use those materials, which is part of the reason it was done after school,” Fox said. “Our staff responded appropriately and took care of the problem that was in the lab area. In fact, they left the building thinking everything was OK. However, the non-toxic fumes were picked up by the ventilation system and those fumes came up into the upstairs wing and people started noticing the smell and wondering what was going on.”

Fox said the district has a plan in place where if something occurs and officials don’t know the cause, they automatically contact the fire department.

“We were called from the high school and told there had been a reaction with battery acid and bleach (cleaning solution),” said Adam Rider, PIFD deputy chief. “I immediately advised them to evacuate the area and we responded. We had the DEP respond, as well. Anytime there’s a chemical involved we bring the DEP in just as a precaution. Basically all we did was open up the school and use our fan system to clear out the smell. After airing out the building, the school resumed their normal operations.

“It was a strong, ammonia-type smell,” he said. “It was relatively minor, but it could have been a lot worse.”

The district employee who was involved in the chemical reaction was checked out at the emergency room at The Aroostook Medical Center and was then released.

Since last Tuesday’s incident, Fox said the Clorox bleach solution has been replaced with a non-chlorine-based, or non-pH, cleaning compound. The staff has also been retrained as to how to respond to any other possible chemical reactions.

The evacuation affected a driver’s education course, as well as student-athletes playing basketball in the upper gymnasium.

The scene was cleared around 4:15 p.m. and adult education classes resumed that evening without incidence.

The fish in the lab were unharmed.

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