HOUSTON – Christopher Melder kicked in the front door of an abandoned chemical lab on Friday, stole eleven pounds of mercury and then tried to sell it, officials said in court Monday night.
The judge gave Melder a total of $5,000 bail on two felony charges, burglary of a building and hazardous waste, meaning he can bond out of jail for $500.
Selling the mercury
Small amounts of mercury have been found at a total of four separate locations in West Houston and at a hospital in Spring, officials said.
Melder sold small amounts of mercury for $20 to unidentified persons at a Wal Mart and Shell gas station less than a mile from the abandoned building, officials said in court.
"The defendant played with the mercury in his hands during his sales," a court official said, "and allowed the mercury to spill to the pavement, but made no attempt to clean it up the hazardous material."
Police said new evidence indicates that the sales and the spills could have happened as early as Friday, Dec. 13, the same day the mercury was stolen from GeoChem labs.
Police said the inside of a Bucky’s convenience store, located at 1212 West Sam Houston Parkway, was also possibly contaminated.
“Even with mercury detected inside the Walmart, the threat to the general public remains minimal,” said Dr. David Persse, local health authority for the Houston Health Department. “With mercury, the biggest concern is long-term exposure, which is not the case in this situation."
The Houston Health Department is encouraging people who visited the Walmart, Sonic, Shell or Bucky’s from Dec. 13-15 to monitor for symptoms. People who were at the locations and are concerned about their shoes can place them outdoors to help potential mercury evaporate, wash the shoes twice in a washing machine or simply throw them away, health officials said.
A 19-year-old man was arrested and charged in connection with a mercury spill in west Houston over the weekend, according to the FBI.
The man, later identified as Melder, was taken into custody early Monday for questioning in connection with the spill.
It was later announced that he was arrested and charged with burglary and unlawful disposal of hazardous material. Melder also had an outstanding felony warrant for drug possession, officials said.
All of the charges Melder face are state charges.
The first mercury spill
On Saturday around 2 a.m., Melder walked into CHI St. Lukes Health-Springwood Village emergency room in Spring to be treated, officials said. While being assessed by a nurse, around five ounces of mercury fell out of hid pocket and backpack, causing it to spill on the floor, hospital officials confirmed.
The hospital released the following statement:
“While being assessed by a triage nurse, approximately five ounces of a liquid substance later determined to be mercury fell out of his pocket and backpack, causing it to spill to the floor.”
The emergency room was immediately shut down while a Hazmat team decontaminated the room. Two patients who were in the ER were transferred to CHI St. Luke’s Health -- The Woodlands Hospital as a precaution. The Emergency Department at Springwoods Hospital shut down for a brief period during the decontamination process but has since reopened.
Hospital officials said the room in question remains closed until final testing confirms that the room is safe for occupancy.
When the hospital realized the patient had mercury, they immediately alerted the Harris County Sheriff’s Department.
Deputies said they attempted to run a warrant check on Melder, who told them he did not have an identification card on him. Using the name provided, deputies said they ran a warrant check that did not return a criminal history.
Deputies said they later learned Melder had given them an incorrect spelling of his name. At the time of the incident, deputies said they were unable to identify sufficient probable cause to file criminal charges against the man.
The west Houston mercury spill
The second spill was reported around 1 p.m Sunday at Westview Drive and West Sam Houston Tollway.
Police said Melder then spilled mercury in three different places around the area.
Melder allegedly attempted to sell the mercury in front of a Walmart located at Westview Drive and a Shell gas station located off of Sam Houston Parkway, to approaching customers. The defendant was selling the mercury in small amounts for $20 each and was able to make two sales to two different citizens. The defendant played with the mercury in his hands during his sales and allowed the mercury to spill to the pavement, but made no attempt to clean it up the hazardous material.
Melder claimed to have had a white female accomplice during this incident. The detective to date has not been able to develop the suspect.
About 30 to 60 people were decontaminated as a precaution after a mercury spill Sunday afternoon in west Houston, according to the Houston Police Department.
A woman who was decontaminated was also transported to a nearby hospital because she is pregnant, police said.
Officials said less than a pint of mercury was found in the parking lots of Walmart, Sonic and a Shell gas station. The risk to the public was extremely low due to the heavy metal being spilled on the ground, officials said.
“The threat to the public is very low because the spill occurred outdoors and the amount of chemical spilled is small,” said Dr. David Persse, local health authority for the Houston Health Department. “The amount of chemical detected on those exposed is below the level that’s dangerous to the average individual.”
The following streets were closed as crew quarantined the scenes:
- Westview at Business Center
- Westview at Clairborough
- Westview at West Sam Houston Parkway North
- Clairborough at West Sam Houston Parkway Service Road
The health department notified all hospitals and healthcare providers to look for signs of mercury exposure.
Police say on Dec. 13 that Melder unlawfully entered a building by kicking in the front door of the business -- GeoChem Labs, which is located at Brittmoore Rd.
While in the business, Melder allegedly took approximately 11 pounds of mercury, which was being stored at this location. The mercury that the defendant stole then attempted to sell as in liquid form.
Melder allegedly also took personal and company checks from the complainant’s business. Complainant Bayless, of GeoChem labs did not give the defendant permission to enter the building and/or to retrieve personal business checks from the business.
What are some of the signs of acute mercury exposure?
Symptoms of acute mercury exposure can include headaches, eye and throat irritation, coughing and nausea. Click here for more information about mercury exposure.
A criminal investigation is underway.