The Mercurial Trail: An Introduction

Monday, February 16, 2015, 4:11 pm
By: 
Alice Dreger

Photo/Image: p. Gordon on Flickr, showing elemental mercury spilled from an old thermostat switch

Last week, thanks to a tip from an ELi reader, Ann Nichols and I broke the story of a lawsuit against the City of East Lansing by a group of workers from the Wastewater Treatment Plant. According to their legal complaint, the workers are suing because they “were intentionally and unnecessarily exposed to mercury and asbestos.”

Today ELi begins a new series of articles about the mercury. Here’s the basic background:

Because of a workshop accident, in November 2013, somewhere between 1 and 1.5 pounds of metal mercury was spilled at East Lansing’s Wastewater Treatment Plant. For reasons we will explain in forthcoming articles, the spill went unreported until March 2014—four months later. At that point, the Ingham County Health Department was finally called in, as was the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA).

But the story didn’t end when the Health Department and MIOSHA finally stepped in. To everyone’s surprise, the spill came up again in October 2014, when the City found out that a mercury-contaminated vacuum hose that had been used to improperly clean the original spill had been later used at the Hannah Community Center to blow out a series of heating coils.

What we’re about to present is a long and complicated story of inadequate safety training of city workers, communication problems between governmental bodies, failures of managerial oversight, worries about mercury getting into the water system, penalties levied against the City, misrepresentation of the facts to City Council, a good deal of City attention being paid to carefully worded press releases, an unwillingness by some City leaders to answer questions, and an untold number of people—from City workers, to contractors visiting the plant, to staff and patrons at Hannah—possibly being exposed to small amounts of metal mercury or mercury vapor. (For an explanation of what that means, see our ELi on Earth report.)

By way of background, I became interested in this story not because of the lawsuit, but because I have been trying to get the City Manager for months to explain whether and how the original mercury spill was tracked. Part of my concern has been personal: I am a regular user of the Hannah Community Center, and it troubled me that the City didn’t promptly disclose the facts immediately to all of us when City managers found out about the possibility of mercury exposure at Hannah.

Failing to get any meaningful answers from the City Manager after several attempts, on January 6—a good month before we heard about the lawsuit—I finally filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to get the documents I would need to find out the answers about the trail of mercury.

Having now processed the more than 900 pages of material obtained through FOIA, I have answers we did not have before. Because this turns out to be a very complex tale, with many twists and turns involving a lot of characters, ELi’s managing editor Ann Nichols and I have decided it is best presented to ELi readers as a series of articles, presented mostly in chronological order.

In the next few days, we’ll be bringing you that series. If there are questions you have in response to reading the series, we’d like to hear them. We’ll try to get them answered. If you have information that will help our reporting, we’d also like to hear that. Remember ELi exists as a public service organization; we are here to help you understand our city.

We are calling this series The Mercurial Trail.

Go to The Mercurial Trail, Part 1: The Spill

 

UPDATE: This article was corrected on February 17, 2015, at 1:45 pm to note that the time elapsed between the spill and the report of it was four months, not five.