The Gloucester County day-care center that exposed more than 60 children and babies to toxic mercury vapors before it was closed in July 2006 won't be demolished this month as planned.

In fact, if the building's owners have their way, it may never be torn down.

Who controls the fate of the Kiddie Kollege building, a contaminated former thermometer factory, is now the focus of a court battle.

The state Department of Environmental Protection, which ordered the day care in Franklin Township to shut down, announced a $1 million plan a few weeks ago to bulldoze the one-story structure this month and decontaminate the site.

But state Superior Court Judge James E. Rafferty has halted that plan - at least until February.

The building's owner, variously named as Jim Sullivan Inc. and the Navillus Group, won't allow access, and the judge says it has a right to a full hearing.

The DEP wants to bill Jim Sullivan, a prominent local real estate broker, for getting rid of the site. Lawyers for Sullivan say that demolition is unnecessary and that they want to remediate the site. They say the cost of a state clean-up is inflated and that Sullivan shouldn't be forced to pay it.

DEP lawyers argued in court that the demolition should not wait, but Rafferty found there was no emergency, "from a scientific evidentiary standpoint."

DEP scientists and others have said that the building contains dangerous vapors, but that its exterior poses no threat. A fence encloses the property, and a sign at the door warns: "Inhalation danger."

A DEP inspector was surprised to discover in April 2006 that a day care had opened in a building on the toxic-sites list that was supposed to be cleaned up. The DEP had failed to enforce the clean-up after the factory owner, Accutherm Inc., declared bankruptcy and abandoned the building.

Sullivan acquired it through a tax foreclosure and leased it to the day care. He assumed it had been remediated, he said later. Sullivan's real estate office is next to the building.

Children who attended Kiddie Kollege were tested for mercury, which causes brain and neurological harm, and were found to have the toxin in their urine. Subsequent tests showed the mercury levels had dropped, and state and federal health officials determined the children would not likely suffer long-term effects.

Contact staff writer Jan Hefler

at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com.