Federal authorities have taken a man into custody as they investigate if a west Houston mercury spill was intentional, the FBI announced early Monday morning.
Christopher Lee Melder, 19, is being charged with burglary and unlawful disposal of hazardous material, according to the FBI. Officials at the agency tweeted that Melder was being questioned in Sunday’s mercury spill, which centered around the intersection of Westview Drive and the West Sam Houston Parkway. Up to 60 people were decontaminated after possible exposure to the mercury, which can be dangerous when ingested or inhaled.
However, officials with the Houston Health Department said that the mercury found Sunday posed an “extremely low” risk to the public, because trace amounts were found on the ground outside. A pregnant woman was the only person hospitalized during the cleanup, according to Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña. He added there was no risk to anyone outside the contaminated area.
Authorities cleared the scene overnight after an hours-long cleanup, according to Houston Fire Department spokesperson Abby Ramos.
The FBI says Melder broke into a Houston-area “lab” and stole the mercury, although authorities did not disclose the name or location of the facility nor what they believe the suspected thief intended to do with the metal.
An unidentified “concerned citizen” who works in the chemical industry reported a white silvery substance on the ground at 11:15 a.m. in the 10700 block of Westview near the parkway. Firefighters responded and found the chemical outside the nearby Walmart, Sonic Drive-In and a Shell gas station.
It’s unclear how long the mercury had been on the ground or how it got there, said Houston Police Executive Assistant Chief Matt Slinkard. He said the police investigation will focus on whether the exposure was intentional or accidental.
Melder was also arrested on an unrelated drug-related warrant, police said.
Reporters Julian Gill, Gwendolyn Wu and Jordan Blum contributed to this report.
Jay R. Jordan covers breaking news in the Houston area. Read him on our breaking news site, Chron.com, and our subscriber site, HoustonChronicle.com
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