Mercury spill leads to allegations of theft in Fresno

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- A Fresno woman who's apartment was evacuated because of a mercury spill says she is the victim of theft.

Elaine Audelo's grandchildren discovered a small glass vial of mercury among her personal possessions on Saturday July 11th. They played with the liquid metal and it spilled throughout the apartment.

Audelo said she didn't know what the substance was. She told Action News it came in a box of stuff she purchased at an auction. But when she saw her grandchildren playing with it she became concerned and called the poison control center. Mercury is highly toxic and poses a serious health threat if ingested, or if it vaporizes and fumes are inhaled.

The Fresno Fire Department responded and de-contaminated Audelo and her grandchildren. Fresno County's Department of Environmental Health and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control also responded. The county hired Parc Environmental Services of Fresno to clean up the mercury. They removed everything from the apartment and tested it for contamination. Contaminated items were inventoried and placed in a metal storage bin on the street outside the apartment complex. Personal property that did not appear to be contaminated was placed in a second bin. Both bins were secured with a lock and chain. A week later next both bins had been broken into by thieves. Audelo claims her valuable personal property was taken.

Audelo told Action News, "Everything else was just taken, my computer my laptop my iPad, my jewelry my coins. I had a $150 of coins in my closet. They took my negligees, everything I had in my closet, they took my shoes."

She also claimed medical equipment and medication was missing. The manager of her apartment building, Liz Berven says the bins were robbed on Saturday, July 17th, and Sunday the 18th.

"Saturday morning the chain and the lock were cut and on the ground. And that was the bin that was supposed to be not hazardous stuff," said Berven. "Then the next morning the other container that had the red tape around that said caution hazardous material, the chain was cut and was on the ground and the doors were standing wide open.

Elaine thinks Parc Services should have better secured the bins. But Parc CEO Louie Matina told Action News his company was not responsible. A spokesman for the state department of toxic substances control also denied any responsibility for securing personal property.

Vincent Mendez of the Fresno County Department of Environmental Health says his department's priority was to save the children and protect public health. He described the apartment as being extremely contaminated, but is relieved the children did not appear to have been hurt by their exposure.

"Some of the kids had apparently poured it on their heads to watch it roll off," said Mendez. "We dodged a big bullet here."

Mendez says the storage bin for Audelo's personal property was provided as a courtesy, since she had no place to put it. He says the theft was unfortunate. But he said the county is working with Audelo to identify what might be missing and adds, "Certainly she can file a claim for loss or damages with the county. I'm certain there is a similar process with the state."

It's not yet clear which items of Audelo's missing property were actually contaminated, but some potentially toxic material appears to have been taken from the bin holding the materials identified as being contaminated with mercury. Mendez says so far it's been determined that two back packs that tested positive for mercury contamination are missing. The stolen items could pose a health threat to whoever took them.

Mendez says the cleanup of the apartment has cost about $30,000. But he says the state department of toxic substances control has decided not to bill Audelo for the cleanup since the contamination by her grandchildren was accidental.

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