Local News

Durham Church, Homes Await Mercury Decontamination

Posted May 28, 2006

— Friday services at Iglesia de Restauracion, a predominantly Hispanic church in Durham, usually draw a crowd.

But this week, after the sanctuary was the apparent source of a countywide mercury scare, the building is padlocked, under police guard and off-limits to church members.

"When we are able to get a list of the people who attend this church and assess what their potential level of exposure has been, that's the other part of the project now, is to get that secured," said Durham County Health Director Brian Letourneau.

So far, 15 children now show signs of mercury poisoning, but more than half are said to be improving. Only one still shows signs of the contamination.

Still, Durham County isn't ready to sound the all-clear signal yet.

"We are continuing to follow up on leads we get from families and children about other children who may have been exposed, so that's ongoing," said Dr. Heidi Swygard of the North Carolina Public Health Division.

From the church to Oak Grove Elementary School and about a dozen homes, Environmental Protection Agency teams out of Atlanta, as well as local health officials, are now in a cleanup mode. They've already started decontaminating Oak Grove and plan to target two homes that tested positive for high mercury levels.

"We're trying to get down to a certain threshold, and we will remove everything we need to get down there," said Environmental Protection Agency coordinator Chris Russell.

Durham County health officials met with members of the church to discuss the dangers of mercury. WRAL learned in that closed-door meeting, health officials talked about the toxic substance with parishioners and what it will take to clean up their sanctuary.

Oak Grove students will report to the Staff Development Center when school resumes on Tuesday. An announcement on when the school will reopen is also expected that day.

The man arrested in the investigation, Carlos Guerra, posted a $2,000 bond after his first court appearance. He faces a misdemeanor charge of larceny for allegedly stealing the mercury from a job site in Garner.


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