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Thursday, March 8, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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UW professor pleads guilty in waste case

Seattle Times staff reporter

A respected University of Washington pharmacology professor became a felon Wednesday when he acknowledged dumping a flammable substance down a laboratory sink and then trying to conceal his actions.

Daniel Storm, 62, pleaded guilty in federal court to violating the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act by flushing about four liters of the solvent ethyl ether. He faces a maximum five years in prison and a $250,000 fine when sentenced June 18, although prosecutors have recommended probation under the terms of a plea agreement.

Storm, who continues to work at the university, has been there nearly 30 years and has enjoyed a "very productive" career, said Tina Mankowski, a spokeswoman for the UW School of Medicine.

"It was just a stupid mistake," Storm said Wednesday. "I've had a perfect record here. I've admitted this and said, 'I'm sorry.' "

"The University of Washington views this as a serious event, and accordingly, a faculty disciplinary process is under way," Mankowski said. "A range of remedial and/or disciplinary actions is under consideration."

The plea agreement states that in June 2006, UW health and safety inspectors found three metal and two glass containers of ether in Storm's lab which, because of the age of the substance, required disposal.

But Storm balked at the estimated $15,000 cost, which would have come out of a lab operations fund. So later that month he took an ax to some of the containers and flushed the contents down the sink, according to the agreement. He kept one container intact.

Where the sink drains is not clear.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jim Oesterle said Storm then tried to cover himself by preparing a false voucher from a fictitious company indicating he'd properly disposed of the substance. UW inspectors discovered the voucher was fake and alerted authorities; when confronted, Oesterle said, Storm admitted his actions.

Oesterle said there is no misdemeanor charge for this particular type of crime. It's unusual to charge someone who has dumped such a small volume, Oesterle said, but he found Storm's actions particularly appalling.

Using the ax was particularly dangerous, Oesterle added, because a spark could easily have ignited the ether.

"Someone in that position ought to know better and appreciate the risks of improper disposal, and follow the correct procedures regardless of expense," Oesterle said.

"He also took steps to cover it up, which we consider egregious."

Storm said he used the ax "just because it was handy" and because the lids on some containers were stuck tight.

"I knew what I'd done was probably wrong, but I didn't realize the penalties," Storm said. "This is a totally strange thing for me."

Mankowski said inspectors routinely attempt to check the health and safety of every UW lab at least once a year.

The disposal cost was a "high-end" estimate from an outside company which might have been reduced if other labs also needed to dispose of hazardous materials at the same time.

Mankowski said she was unaware of any similar incidents at the university.

Acute exposure to ethyl ether, which was once used as a general anesthetic, can cause irritation of the nose and eyes, dizziness, acute excitement, drowsiness and vomiting, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety & Health Administration Web site.

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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