Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Mysterious powder spurs hazardous waste scare

Allen & Co. events relocated due to possible contamination

Express Staff Writer

An unknown contaminate found in the Limelight Convention Center at the Sun Valley Inn prompted a full-scale hazardous waste investigation last weekend during the final day of the Allen & Co. annual summer conference.

The investigation ensued early Saturday, July 15, after Sun Valley Co. night security personnel reported a strange smell in the convention facility.

"It was one of those situations. It was a lot of work and effort for a lot of people and it ended up being a non-event," said Jack Sibbach, Sun Valley director of sales, marketing and public relations.

Sun Valley police and fire departments responded at 1:45 a.m. to a call from Sun Valley Co. reporting a strange smell in the Limelight Room. The agencies found an unknown white powder on the surface of air handling equipment and on nearby vegetation at the back of the Sun Valley Inn.

"It was such an odd odor and an odd looking substance. We couldn't identify it," said Sun Valley Police Chief Cameron Daggett.

The mysterious nature of the substance prompted a full-day hazardous waste investigation that concluded when the material was confirmed to be brewer's yeast, a non-hazardous yeast commonly used for brewing beer.

"We probably had the best drill you could have ever had," said Sun Valley Fire Chief Jeff Carnes.

The scare coincided with the Allen & Co. annual summer conference, which was in full swing at Sun Valley Resort. Every July, the United States' wealthiest descend on Sun Valley for the five-day conference.

"It was probably directed at (Allen & Co.), not so much as who they are, but they are a pretty big group," Daggett said.

The Sun Valley Police Department is conducting a criminal investigation of the event.

Due to the investigation, Allen & Co. events scheduled for the conference in the Limelight Room—a morning breakfast and interview of billionaire investor Warren Buffett—were moved to alternate locations at the resort. The affected ventilation system only served the Limelight Convention Center.

"We would have to do this for any client or guest. You have to be overly cautious in a situation like this," Sibbach said.

In the meantime, Sun Valley police, unable to identify the substance, called Idaho State Communications, a division of the Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security. The Regional Five Hazard Materials Response team, based in the Magic Valley, made its first ever trip to Blaine County to assist.

Blaine County Disaster Services and the Blaine County Hazardous Materials Trailer, manned by volunteers of the Ketchum, Hailey, and Wood River Rural fire departments, were also on the scene.

A preliminary on-site analysis determined that the substance was not a health hazard.

Idaho Gov. Jim Risch, who was at Sun Valley Resort Saturday morning, facilitated further tests. The governor, on his way to Boise with his security guards, took samples of the substance in a police car to Mountain Home for a field test. Risch then directed the state lab in Boise to immediately examine the material.

A final confirmation came at 5 p.m. that the substance was not hazardous. The analysis indicated that the material was primarily brewer's yeast, which does not pose any health threats. Initial reports had identified the substance as D-Con, a product used to poison rats.

Upon confirmation that the material was not hazardous, the scene was turned over to the Sun Valley Co. for cleanup. Saturday evening, the Allen & Co. dinner was held, as scheduled, in Limelight Room.

Anyone with knowledge of the event is asked to contact the Sun Valley Police Department at 622-5345.

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