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Professor pleads guilty to dumping chemical
UW researcher put solvent down sink to avoid paying fee

Thursday, March 8, 2007

By Christine Frey
Seattle Post-Intelligencer Reporter
Published by Seattle Post-Intelligencer on March 8, 2007

When Daniel R. Storm, a University of Washington professor whose work includes studying the brain, found out that getting rid of potentially dangerous chemicals in his lab would cost $15,000, he decided to find a cheaper way.

Storm, a professor in the Department of Pharmacology, dumped ethyl ether down the sink.

On Wednesday, Storm, 62, pleaded guilty in federal court in Seattle to pouring the ethyl ether, which can explode or catch fire if handled improperly, down the laboratory sink in June 2006. Prosecutors say Storm then tried to cover up his actions.

He could face up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000 for knowingly disposing of a hazardous waste without a permit. But prosecutors are recommending probation, said Emily Langlie, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Seattle.

When the UW's Environmental Health and Safety Department told Storm that it would cost $15,000 to dispose of the solvent, he broke three metal containers with an ax and poured the liquid down the sink in his lab. He also disposed of an ethyl ether and water mixture in two glass bottles.

Storm then poured water and an ethanol solution down the drain to dilute the solvent, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

He admitted that he did not want to pay for the disposal from his laboratory account. The liquid was not used in his research, but was found in his lab.

Ethyl ether has a flammability rating of 4 -- meaning it is an "extreme fire hazard" -- according to the National Fire Protection Association. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration advises that only people in protective gear clean up spills of ethyl ether.

The Environmental Health and Safety Department discovered the containers of ethyl ether and told Storm that an outside agency would have to dispose of them, said Tina Mankowski, associate vice president for medical affairs at the UW. When health and safety workers made a follow-up visit to the lab, they discovered that the solvent was gone.

The UW typically contracts with a group that can safely remove such materials after hours, when people are not in the labs, she said.

She said that what happened in Storm's lab is rare.

"I've not heard that it's a problem," Mankowski said. "I think our environment health and safety is really on top."

Storm's lawyer, John Wolfe, said that Storm acknowledged that he acted improperly and is trying to rectify the matter by pleading guilty to the dumping charge and working with the university.

"He accepts full responsibility for this," Wolfe said.

A disciplinary review is under way, Mankowski said. None of Storm's teaching or research duties have been suspended.

Storm joined the UW in 1978, according to an online biography. His lab research involves memory and the brain.

He will be sentenced June 18.

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