BIRMINGHAM, AL -
It was right before Spring Break 2012.
With a substitute teacher in charge, some Putnam Middle School students got their hands on some liquid mercury.
It ended up on the floor, their shoes and ultimately tracked all over some of their homes.
The cleanup would come with a cost.
“We anticipate in the hundreds of thousands, again because of the cleanup here the screenings that have been going on at the homes,” Superintendent Dr. Craig Witherspoon said at the time.
Students were screened for contamination.
No one's health was harmed.
The Environmental Protection Agency also had to remove items from three homes, which included ripping out and replacing the complete flooring in one of them.
“For two of the homes we had to have the families relocated,” the EPA’s Gary Andrew pointed out in March 2012.
So how much did the cleanup cost the Birmingham taxpayer?
We are still seeking answers.
Following an initial Open Records Request and multiple follow up emails, the EPA reports its final cost in the mercury spill aftermath topped out at $339,211.
However, the bottom line goes much higher.
On top of the EPA’s role, the Birmingham School System hired its own private contractor, HEPACO.
That company handled the cleanup of school property.
Our attempt to get our hands on a final figure from the Birmingham School Board has encountered plenty of delays.
Over the last 21 months, we have sent dozens of emails, three official requests and two attorney letters.
On June 14, 2012, we filed an Open Records Request for the cleanup cost information.
On August 28th, 11 weeks later, we received incomplete price information, but were promised more.
Then on September 21, 2012 our attorneys sent the school board a letter, followed by a second letter about two weeks later.
Since the school board said it was still waiting on a few cleanup invoices, we decided to give them more time.
So we gave them twelve more months.
Finally, on November 27th of this year, we filed another Open Records Request for a final accounting of the mercury spill at Putnam Middle School.
Then late on Monday, December 9th, the school district sent me the same cost totals they provided us in 2012, without the additional amounts they had originally claimed they needed more time to collect.
So where does the total cost stand at this point?
Cleanup company HEPACO's bill stood at $517,246, plus another $4,307 for replacing students' shoes and clothes.
When you add that to EPA's total of $339,211, the March 9, 2012 mercury spill has cost the school district $860,765.92.
So how much mercury caused such a mess that could cost taxpayers nearly one million dollars to clean up?
About two and half pounds, the equivalent of about three fluid ounces, we were told.
We'll let you know when determine a final price tag and how exactly the Birmingham School Board plans to pay for it.