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Chemist stole cyanide to kill rodents, DA says. It nearly ended up in the water supply.

Authorities say Richard O’Rourke dumped potassium cyanide in a public storm drain after stealing the chemical to kill rodents on his property.
Authorities say Richard O’Rourke dumped potassium cyanide in a public storm drain after stealing the chemical to kill rodents on his property. Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office

Chemist Richard O'Rourke, 60, had a plan to kill the rodents on his Warrington, Pennsylvania, property (about 40 miles north of Philadelphia), but he almost polluted the water supply in the process, according to prosecutors.

Upper Gwynedd Township Police had received a tip from another chemist at Merck & Co, a pharmaceutical company, that potassium cyanide had been stolen from a laboratory, according to Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele.

The witness saw O’Rourke, who’s not required to handle the toxic chemical for his job, take the cyanide from the poison cabinet, pour it into a beaker and then into a water bottle last December, prosecutors said.

An investigation revealed that O’Rourke was going to use the cyanide to poison the rodents near his home, Steele said.

But when O’Rourke somehow found out he was being investigated, he apparently nixed the plan, authorities said, and dumped the chemical into a public stormwater drain a day after allegedly stealing the chemical.

Potassium cyanide interferes with the body’s ability to use oxygen, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Exposure to the chemical can be fatal.

The dumping sent surrounding departments scrambling to make sure the chemical didn’t taint the water supply, authorities said. Merck contacted the state Department of Environmental Protection, which immediately tried to find the dumpsite and started monitoring the water supply for signs of toxicity, prosecutors said.

Aqua PA and the Philadelphia Water Department, which both maintain intake facilities that could have been affected by the dump, began testing and monitoring water samples from their systems, Steel said.

Nearby water departments were on “high alert” for at least two weeks, prosecutors said. But no evidence of toxic impact was found and no cyanide was detected in the drinking water, Steele said.

Environmental officials say a “significant rainfall” may have saved the day. DEP says it rained several days after O’Rourke allegedly dumped the chemical. The rain should have been sufficient to flush the cyanide out of any stormwater inlet, authorities said, leading the agency to determine it had been diluted and washed out.

No one was hurt, Steele said.

O’Rourke is charged with causing or risking catastrophe, theft and other offenses.

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