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Mystery Gas Sickens Students, No One Will Say What it Was

Last Monday, St Helens High School was evacuated after students and faculty noticed a strong odor, and some fell ill. Nearby, people at the local Safeway store, and at the bank, also became ill. Several people had to be treated for nausea, dizziness, burning of skin and eyes, and respiratory complaints. After some initial speculation that it was a natural gas leak, it was finally determined that it was, instead, a mystery. There was no leak anywhere on the school grounds, and chemical sniffers detected no natural gas. What was it, then??? Officials are mum.
On Monday, my child called me at work to tell me that he had been evacuated from his school. He said that there was a gas leak of some kind, and no one knew where it was coming from, so he was on his way home. He said they started to smell the gas about 20 minutes after he arrived at school, and that eventually an order came over the intercom to evacuate. The students were ushered out into a field behind the school. They were told to "get as far away from the school as possible," and to "stay away from Building A." Staff kept ushering students farther and farther back from the school, but then began walking them around in a great circle. Finally, after about 45 minutes or so of this, the students were ushered back to the school. When they got back, they were told that they could return to classes, that there was "nothing to worry about." This was about 9:30am.

According to my child, when they went back inside, "it smelled like the whole place could go up if someone lit a match." He said that the smell was overwhelming, and that it smelled like rotten eggs. "Like farty rotten eggs," he added. He said he got an immediate headache from it, and so did everyone he was with. Nevertheless, they were kept in their classrooms until about 11am, while students complained that they wanted to leave. Some students were calling parents on cell phones to come and get them, others were simply leaving. Finally, at about 11, an announcement came over the loudspeaker that so many students were leaving that officials decided they would go ahead and close the school. Incidentally, students were told at that point, the gas cloud was now moving toward Scappoose.

When I heard the story, I was worried, but I was still under the impression that the smell had been a natural gas leak. Fire fighters had come to investigate, and my child was told by teachers that the source was not the school. If the leak wasn't on school grounds, and if the wind had shifted so that the cloud was now moving away from them, then it was supposedly safe to return to the school. I was still dubious. I was concerned about where the leak might have come from, and worried about the possibility of an explosion, but I thought that at the very least, I knew what it was. I thought it was natural gas. No one from the school ever indicated otherwise.

The following day, I was afraid to send my child back to school, since the leak had not been located. To my relief, the the weather on Tuesday was nasty, and school was delayed by 2 hours. Because of the weather, and because of the uncertainty about the gas leak, I decided to keep my child home for the day.

It was not until several days later that I learned, from the local newspaper, that the source and nature of the gas is a mystery. Natural gas was ruled out by chemical sniffers, and no leak was ever found. If it wasn't natural gas, then what WAS it? No one is saying. I'm angry and upset about this. My child was kept in a room with gas fumes for at least an hour and a half. Everyone in the room got an immediate headache from the fumes, but all were expected to stay there in the gas anyway. Officials did not take action to protect the students. Instead, the more proactive students had to take matters into their own hands, and evacuate themselves. It was only after students began streaming out of the school on their own that the school was finally closed, and the remaining students were sent home.

I am also pissed that my child was exposed to a toxic chemical, and no one will tell me what it was, or where it came from. It was obviously a very large cloud, in a very strong concentration, if it was able to sicken people in a high school, in a grocery store across the street, and a bank down the road. What in the fucking hell WAS it? Where did it COME from??

There must be answers to this. Someone knows what happened. Why is no one speaking up?

Here are my guesses. First, there is a gulping, burping disaster waiting to happen over at the Boise Cascade plant, less than a mile from the school. A couple of years ago, there was an accident at the mill, when a tanker truck full of sodium hypochlorite accidentally dumped its load into the wrong tank -- a tank already filled with sodium bisulfate. The mixture produced poisonous sulfur dioxide, sending 23 people to the hospital. (See  http://portland.indymedia.org/en/2005/09/325304.shtml for that story.) At the time of this accident, no one in the local community was informed. None of us were warned, evacuated, or otherwise told of the accident or the danger. It was quietly hushed up by the mill and by local authorities, who kiss up to heavy industry no matter how dangerous, because in this depressed rural community, this is virtually the only tax base there is.

That would be my first guess. The mill is not far from the school, a breeze would have carried any escaping gasses from the mill right over the school, the bank, and the grocery store. I do not know what sulfur dioxide smells like, but I'll bet it would smell a lot like "farty rotten eggs." (Anyone know?) If not sulfur dioxide, I'm given to understand there are a lot of other vats filled with a lot of other very dangerous, burbling substances that are not at all safe over there. They routinely work with carcinogens, teratogens, and asphyxiates. The river running past the mill is so toxic that signs warn passersby not to drink, swin in, or touch the water. I have witnessed black smoke and brown smoke and yellow smoke belching out of the plant on various occasions. I have smelled all manner of nastiness coming from there. So it is no secret that Boise Cascade has the potential to burp up poisons into the air and water. Could they have released something into our community last week and not bothered to let anyone know? Could they have poisoned the school?

The only other guess I could make for a cloud that big, and that noxious, would be something oozing out of the Dyno Nobel chemical plant, further on up Highway 30. Certainly, they are experimenting with some terrifying things over there, and who knows what might leak from their secretive pipes. The direction in which the cloud moved after it made its swath through the high school and grocery store would be right, if the cloud had come from Dyno Nobel. This is possible, but my guess is still the Boise Cascade mill. (If the cloud had traveled all the way from Dyno Nobel, it would have traveled about 4 miles before reaching the school, so that many more people would likely have noticed and been effected. If it came from the mill, though, it would have been a fairly straight shot over a small and mostly unpopulated area before reaching the school.)

Whatever the cause of this mystery toxin, you can bet that someone knows. There's no way that a gas cloud of this magnitude could have escaped from anywhere, without SOMEONE noticing. Someone knows exactly what happened, exactly what the gas was, and exactly where it came from. It had to have come from big industry, and there aren't that many suspects out here. I am angry that some heartless industrial giant allowed my child to be exposed to poison, and then hid from any culpability. In covering their own asses, they are putting this community at risk. We do not even know what it was that crept out of their vats and into our children's lungs. How can they keep this information from us??? I want to know what it was that my child, and all the children at that school were exposed to. Is this too much to ask? I say no.

You can bet that I intend to pursue this matter.

No More Toxic Waste in St Helens! 20.Jan.2008 21:02


My housemates and I are divided over whether the toxins came from Boise or Dyno Nobel, or where. But we intend to find out. I do not have any pictures of Dyno, but here are some pics of Boise Cascade.

Astounding! 20.Jan.2008 23:49


If no location had been given for these photos, my first take would be "cancer alley" along the Mississippi in Louisiana. Instead it's Poison Cascade in Oregon!

What a dismal prospect, that the land, air and water, the governances of the region, the nation and the planet are locked-up for the perpetuation of the corporate and investment casino economic forms -- as if they are the critical species to protect and sustain at the subordination of all natural life forms.

Maybe if we elect the right persons, write to the "representatives" it will all change (snort)!

UPDATE 22.Jan.2008 16:10

St Helens

After waiting for more than a week for "investigators" to discover the source of gas in my child's school, I have learned that there WAS no investigation, that no one knows what the gas was or where it came from, and that no one seems to care. In addition, I have learned that no one out in my community is looking out for the safety of the citizens here, and that no one is watching what heavy industry is dumping into the environment.

Today, I called the school to find out what the verdict was as to the source and nature of the gas that caused the evacuation of the school last week. I was told that they did not know, they only knew that it did not come from the school. The principal's secretary, with whom I spoke, was not very helpful, and did not seem to comprehend why it would be of concern to me that my child was exposed to some kind of mysterious toxic chemical in their building last week. She was very short with me, and quite unhelpful. She did tell me that the same gas was detected at the grocery store, at the Century 21 realtor's office way down the road, and at some businesses in Scappoose -- 7 miles down the highway. So clearly, it must have been a very large amount of gas in the air. She said no one knows where it came from, and she wondered if maybe it came from a train. She seemed too busy to talk about the matter further.

I tried city hall next. The woman who answered the phone there was nicer, but equally unhelpful. She said that she understood that the chemical had been natural gas. When I told her that the gas company denied this, saying that there was no gas detected, she said that she did not know what it was. She said I could try calling the school. I told her that I had already done this, and they don't know anything either. Asked who might know something, she again said that she did not know. Asked if anyone was monitoring the air quality out here, she said she did not know, but she did not think so. Admittedly, I became a little exasperated at this point, asking if there was anyone who knew anything. She said maybe the health department might know something, but she was not sure. She gave me their phone number.

I tried the Columbia County health department. The person who answered the phone there told me that she had heard that the gas was natural gas. I told her that the gas company had denied this, and asked whether she had any official information about its being natural gas. She said she did not, it was only what she heard, but she did not know where she had heard it from. She said that she did know that whatever it was, it did not come from inside the school. "You should call the school," she said. Again, I told her that I had already done so, and that I was hoping that someone at either the city or the country level might know something, or be able to direct me to someone who is looking into this matter. She said she did not know of anyone looking into the matter. Well, I asked, does anyone know anything??? I mean, is there anyone who could tell me what the toxin was that my child was exposed to, and where it might have come from? After all, I said, my child was exposed to high amounts of something. He got a headache from it. Many people at his school became sick. I need to know what it was that he was exposed to, and what the dangers might be!!! She said to me, "I don't have a 100 percent report yet, so I really could not say."

No "100 percent report" yet? Is someone doing any kind of investigation, then? Will there be a report? When will it come out? Who will issue this 100 percent report, and how can I get a copy? It turns out that no one is doing any kind of investigation at all. So it is hard to imagine where any "100 percent report" is going to come from. This was evidentally a very unhelpful smoke screen -- a clumsy effort to get me off the phone. Well, it might have worked. Perhaps I would have gone away and forgotten the whole thing, if not for one little detail. MY CHILD WAS EXPOSED TO SOME KIND OF TOXIC CHEMICAL LAST WEEK! I freaking want to know what it was, and where it came from! I made this clear to her, and asked again if there was anyone who knows anything that I could talk to. She transferred me to someone named Mark Eddington, who is supposed to maybe know something. I got his voice mail. Still waiting for word.

I'll let you know if I hear anything.

You know, it really strikes me as bizarre and frightening that a huge cloud of some kind of toxic chemical could envelop the city like that, and NO ONE IS EVEN LOOKING INTO IT AT ALL! wtf?? We think there are "experts" out there looking out for our best interests. I guess all of us should have learned from Katrina that, when it comes down to it, nobody is out there to help us. Our government is just one giant, money-sucking load of symbolism, and no action. No one is watching out for us at all.

There are industrial polluters out here, and they can pump whatever they want into the air and water and soil, and no one will ever catch them at it, because no one even looks into these things. Very scary.