(USA TODAY) SEATTLE — Federal investigators successfully removed 4,000 containers of hazardous chemicalsfrom a home here in a cleanup that took almost 10 days, officials said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency inspected the house April 8 after firefighters discovered the stockpile of chemicals while helping an elderly resident walk down the steps of the home in the city's Green Lake neighborhood. Authorities immediately removed the owners, a brother and sister in their 90s, and called in hazardous-material teams to take out at least 40 varieties of chemicals they described as commercial and industrial grade.
Initially, officials thought they were dealing with about 1,000 containers, some leaking and many stored improperly and unlabeled.
"We thought we had a big problem, but the problem turned out to be bigger than originally expected," Jeffrey Rodin, on-scene coordinator for the EPA, said Wednesday.
After nine days of work, officials said the number of containers really was 4,000 and safely packing the substances for removal that they determined to be poisonous, corrosive or flammable was a major effort.
One 91-year-old resident of the house is a research chemist, the EPA said. A chemical company registered at the address closed in 1992, Washington State Department of Revenue records show.
The homeowner told investigators that he's a scientist and that he never felt that he had endangered himself or neighbors.
Those neighbors have been watching the cleanup at the white clapboard house on a small lot in disbelief.
"I knew nothing at all," Rodger Webster said. "I had maybe twice talked to him."
The presence of well stocked but poorly stored batches of chemicals crammed in the house never came up.
The substances were oozing, seeping and spilling out of containers, putting neighbors at risk of a violent chemical reaction, investigators say.
"If there was a fire here, then the fire would have been much worse because of the types of chemicals and the volume of chemicals," Rodin said. "And some of the chemicals could have potentially triggered the fire if containers had deteriorated any further."
Clean-up teams used absorbent pellets to capture and neutralize chemicals spilling from leaking and open containers placed in plastic buckets.
"We've had over 2,000 man hours over the past 10 days just dedicated for site personnel," Rodin said.
City officials are trying to determine whether the homeowners face criminal charges. They said the pair will be billed for the as-yet-to-be-totaled cost of cleanup, but if the siblings can't pay, taxpayers will foot the bill.
Neighbors are happy to get their street back.
"We're really glad it's cleaned up, as you could imagine," Webster said.