Carlos Guerra posted a $2,000 bond after his first court appearance. He faces a misdemeanor charge of larceny.
Guerra is accused of stealing the mercury from a scrap metal company in Garner. Investigators said he gave the chemical to four children at a Durham church, who then took it to Oak Grove Elementary School.
A member of Guerra's church said Guerra did not know the mercury was dangerous.
"He just got it from the job," said Aracely Hernandez, a member of Iglesia de Restauracion, who appeared Thursday at Guerra's court hearing. "He played with it. He (took) it to church and played with the other children. But he didn't know exactly what it (was)."
Hernandez described Guerra as an honest and good man who just made a mistake.
Durham authorities said Friday that 15 children now show symptoms of mercury poisoning. Of those 15 students, authorities said eight of them are showing improvement. Only one continues to show signs of the contamination.
Durham County authorities are now switching to cleanup mode. Environmental Protection Agency crews and state and local teams have ramped up their resources to get the job done.
Crews found minimal mercury levels at Oak Grove Elementary and plan to work through the weekend to clean the school. They've also been assessing about a dozen homes of students who were exposed to mercury. Two homes in particular are of great concern because of high mercury levels.
"We'll go in and do air monitoring with our (equipment) and try to identify the source in the home, the most contaminated air, what's emitting the vapors and move that out and any contaminated material," said EPA Coordinator Chris Russell.
As for the church where the scare started, the facility tested positive for high mercury levels and remains off-limits. An announcement about when Oakgrove should reopen is expected next Tuesday.
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