Three employees of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's Hazardous Materials and Waste Management Division and a Denver attorney have been honored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for their work in removing hazardous chemicals from Colorado schools and in training first responders to deal with such problems.
Honored were Ken Niswonger, a senior chemist; Chris Erzinger, a compliance assistance staff member; and Fred Dowsett, their supervisor and the head of the Compliance Assistance and Technical Support Program in the department's Hazardous Materials and Waste Management Division.
Also honored was Tim Gablehouse, a Denver attorney and long-time chair of the Colorado Emergency Planning Committee. Gablehouse was recognized for promoting and supporting the project and keeping local emergency planning committees committed to the effort. The awards were presented at a recent meeting of the Colorado Board of Health.
Niswonger, Erzinger and Dowsett were recognized for their "chemical accident prevention activities, local coordination and preparedness" work over the past five years to remove old, deteriorated and unsafe chemicals from school and college storerooms used by chemistry classes throughout Colorado.
This cooperative effort has involved Colorado school districts; fire departments; the Colorado State Patrol; law enforcement agencies; local health departments; and county public health nursing services.
Niswonger said the dangerous chemicals have been found across Colorado in locations ranging from elementary schools to colleges.
Niswonger has been the one, in high-level protective gear and respirator, who usually removed the chemicals and handled, advised and oversaw the destruction of the least stable materials. The unstable, dangerous chemicals have often been destroyed by detonation with the assistance of various public safety personnel and bomb squads, depending on the locations.
Niswonger explained, "We have inspected more than 250 Colorado schools by invitation of the school or the fire marshal, about 10 percent of which had really serious problems. Close to 40 percent had less serious problems, but needed to institute some chemical materials management practices. The problems are frequently discovered by a new science teacher walking into the school storeroom for the first time."
Douglas H. Benevento, the Department of Public Health and Environment's executive director, said, "One of the most important aspects of the work that this team has performed has been in providing training on the safe storage of chemicals to the state's chemistry teachers. They have provided free workshops to some 400 teachers at all levels, often on weekends, on how to manage their own chemicals properly. Police officers, firemen, and hazardous materials technicians also have participated in the training."
Erzinger and Niswonger also have instructed classes for all students graduating from the University of Northern Colorado and planning to become science teachers.
Dowsett was acknowledged for proposing and supporting the efforts when it was clear that there was no other government agency willing to take on the task.
Howard Roitman, the Department of Public Health and Environment's director of environmental programs, said, "All three men knew there was an important job to be done to protect the students in our schools. They did whatever was necessary to make that happen, in addition to their regularly scheduled work."
The employees were nominated for the award by Barbara Benoy, a staff member for the Emergency Response Branch of the Superfund Program at EPA's regional office in Denver.