Testing continues on powder found at Ellsworth bank center

By Rich Hewitt, BDN Staff
Posted May 13, 2011, at 12:57 p.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine — The Maine Crime Lab on Friday confirmed that the white powder discovered Thursday in an envelope at a local bank operations center contained no hazardous materials.

But there still was no word as to what the powder was, according to Ellsworth Deputy Fire Chief Richard Tupper.

Tupper said he was notified Friday morning that the latest test results were negative and then allowed employees at the Bar Harbor Bank and Trust operations center full access to the building.

“The state crime lab got the same results; everything was negative,” Tupper said, referring to preliminary tests conducted on Wednesday by hazmat specialists after the powder was discovered. “There was no biological, chemical or protein hazard in the powder.”

The lab planned to conduct one additional test — which was expected to take much of the day Friday — in an effort to identify what the white powder was.

“The difficulty there is that there was such a small amount collected, they’re not sure if they’ll be able to identify what the substance was.”

As of late Friday afternoon, Tupper said he had not yet received results from the lab.

Based on the information from the lab, Tupper said bank employees were allowed full access to the building on Friday. The employees were evacuated from the building at about 11 a.m. Thursday and then were allowed back in to retrieve personal belongings late that afternoon after field tests determined that the substance was not dangerous. Emergency crews, however, had kept the office where the powder was discovered sealed until the lab in Augusta confirmed that there was no hazard.

The operations center is the communications hub for the bank with calls going through that office. For a short time, with all the employees out of the building, no calls were being answered Thursday morning, according to bank spokeswoman Cheryl Curtis. The bank’s IT team quickly rerouted calls through some of the branch offices, she said.

Employees at the center provide back office accounts support and processing, research and statement support, ATM, electronic banking and customer support.

An employee at the operations center discovered the substance Thursday morning when she opened a standard legal-size envelope. Some of the powder got on her hands and she told authorities that she had experienced a burning sensation. As a precaution, the woman, whose name was not released, was taken to Maine Coast Memorial Hospital where she remained throughout the day until field tests determine the substance was not dangerous.

According to Curtis, the woman returned to work on Friday.

“She’s fine,” the spokeswoman said. “There were no adverse effects.”

Employees were evacuated from the building and waited outside during the day as local and regional hazardous materials teams prepared to enter the building. Although food and water were brought to the scene, Tupper said emergency crews could not allow the employees to eat or drink until they had determined that the white powder was safe.

“That was difficult,” Tupper said. “The employees could not eat or drink anything. We needed to make sure that anything they might have come in contact with was not ingested.”

Emergency responders, including members of the Orono-Old Town Regional Rapid Response Team and the Maine National Guard Civil Support Team from Waterville, donned protective suits and air packs to enter the building and gather samples of the powder.

The team conducted a preliminary test on the substance inside the building and then did a second test inside the National Guard CST mobile lab on-site. Both were negative. A third test, conducted as the CST crew was en route back to Waterville, also determined that there were no hazardous materials in the white powder.

According to Tupper, Ellsworth police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are investigating the incident. The envelope and what appeared to be folded pieces of paper inside have been turned over to those agencies.

Few new details were available on Friday. Ellsworth Police Officer Chad Wilmot said on Thursday that the envelope did bear a return address. The residents at that address were contacted Thursday, but Wilmot did not discuss the results of that conversation. He said no one had been arrested, and Lt. Harold Page on Friday said he could not comment on an active investigation.

A representative from the FBI was on the scene in Ellsworth on Thursday, but declined to discuss the incident.

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/05/13/news/hancock/testing-continues-in-powder-found-at-ellsworth-bank-center/ printed on October 1, 2014