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Breaking: Discovery of expired chemicals in Noyce prompts evacuation, detonation

An ambulance joins the procession of law enforcement vehicles escorting the chemicals to their detonation on the Grinnell College Golf Course. Photo by Andy Pavey.

By Andy Pavey

Noyce Science Center was evacuated Thursday night after a twenty-year-old batch of expired chemicals was found in storage. At around 6:30 p.m., about an hour and a half after students were first notified of the discovery, the chemicals were detonated, and a blast was heard and felt.  Explosive and bomb technicians conducted the controlled detonation on the Grinnell College Golf Course, promptly ending the threat.

Community members subscribed to Poweshiek County Emergency alerts were advised of the detonation of the chemicals in advance, but students received no warning through the Pioneer Alert system.

According to a memo from Director of Campus Security James Shropshire, the expired chemical was diethyl ether, a highly volatile and flammable compound.

Campus Safety Officer Matthew Kriegel told The S&B that chemical hygiene officer and chemistry technician Sharon Isley notified Campus Safety of the presence of the expired chemicals, and the Fire Marshal took over the operation from there.

It is unknown how the diethyl ether was not noticed and disposed of sooner.

A fire engine parked in front of Noyce Science Center. At the far door, a Campus Safety officer looks on. Photo by Andy Pavey.

Students were alerted to the threat by a Pioneer Alert instructing them to avoid the north and east sides of Noyce. Campus Safety and Facilities Management staff helped herd students out and stood guard at entrances while the chemicals were removed from the building. Kriegel emphasized that an “abundance of caution” was being exercised throughout the process.

The chemicals were loaded into the scoop of a backhoe and escorted by a caravan comprised of law enforcement and campus safety vehicles. Their goal, according to Facilities Management Groundsperson Bart Benson, was to “take [the chemicals] up by the observatory and let them go ‘boom.’”

The slow-moving procession moved east on 8th Avenue, drove north on East St., and followed a service road adjacent to the Bear Recreation & Athletics Center until it reached “an unused area of the Grinnell College Golf Course, where it could be buried with a detonation charge and disposed of,” wrote James Shropshire in a memo sent the following day. “There is no ongoing concern of danger.”

Law enforcement vehicles on East St. drive toward the Grinnell College Golf Course, as seen through the Rose Hall arch. Photo by Andy Pavey.

UPDATE (11/15/19): This article has been updated to reflect new information provided by the Department of Campus Safety.

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