The Mercurial Trail, Part 3: The Call

Wednesday, February 18, 2015, 7:00 am
Alice Dreger

Image: The sign outside the Wastewater Treatment Plant

This article picks up from "The Mercurial Trail, Part 2: The Spill Spreads."

What finally compelled a worker at the East Lansing Wastewater Treatment Plant to call the authorities and report the November 2013 mercury spill, four months after it happened?

In a word: fear.

Internal records show that in March, 2014, only about a week before a worker finally formally reported the spill, HBC Contracting had been brought into the East Lansing Wastewater Treatment Plant to perform spot abatement of “asbestos-containing material” in the electrical room and in the plant’s tunnel system. At the same time, American Safety & Heath Associates, Inc., another independent contractor, had been engaged by the plant’s supervisor to come and do “Basic Asbestos Awareness” Training.

Thanks to concerns about asbestos, the wastewater plant employees’ consciousness about the dangers of workplace pollutants was steadily rising. So, too, would have been their concern about their own health from possible exposure to mercury and asbestos. This was confirmed when I spoke this week to Neal Wilensky, the attorney representing the workers in their exposure lawsuit against the City.

The top plaintiff listed on the lawsuit is Troy Williams, who finally called the authorities. Asked about why Williams finally made the call, Wilensky told me that “nothing was being done” about the dangerous situation up until that point.

A complaint filed in March 2014 with the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) described the two major, intertwined health and safety concerns among the plant’s employees:

According to the complaint to MIOSHA, “Asbestos has been known to be present in this facility since 2007. It is on all piping in the plant and mainly on the first floor in the tunnels. No one has been told that asbestos is present. It has been falling down on the floor, walked on, and dry swept up by employees who are not trained on asbestos and do not know the hazards.”

Furthermore, according to the whistleblower, “A supervisor took a mercury manometer with one to one and a half pounds of mercury in it and dumped it on a work bench. The mercury spilled all over the floor. He blew the rest out into the sink and then vacuumed it up. The vacuums are still in the shop. Employees were not notified of the presence of the hazard of mercury. The accident happened in November of 2013 but the area has never been properly cleaned up.”

MIOSHA shields the names of employees reporting workplace concerns, so we can’t know exactly who made that report. But the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) does not shield reporters, so we can see from DEQ records that on March 20, 2014, at about 11:15 am, it was Troy Williams who called the DEQ to report the mercury spill and finally got the formal investigations rolling.

In his initial report, besides describing the spill and botched cleanup, Williams told the DEQ, “Over the past few months there have been 2 employees very ill and Dr’s do not know what is causing yellowing skin, loss of weight, weakness.”

This report went directly into the DEQ’s Pollution Emergency Alert System. The DEQ also immediately contacted the Ingham County Health Department.

Williams was not the only worker moved to report the spill at that point. Internal City communications show that first thing that morning, plant worker Allesha Morris had called Shelli Neumann, the City’s Director of Human Resources, to say “that she would like to meet with me, Todd [Sneathen, Director of Public Works], and possible George [Lahanas, City Manager] as soon as possible. She indicated that she was very upset about a safety issue at the Waste Water Treatment Plant.” Morris is a leader in the worker’s union.

On March 20, while the emergency alert set off by Troy Williams was pinging around the various agencies tasked with dealing with public health and environmental contamination, the City’s directors Neumann and Sneathen went over to the plant and met with Allesha Morris and also Scott Dedic, another union rep.

Alerted via the DEQ, Mark Piavis and Rene Franco of the Ingham County Health Department showed up at about 1 pm. According to the Health Department’s report, Sneathen took them over to the site of the spill, explaining that “he had been unaware of the event until that morning.” Sneathen told them he thought the spill involved between 1 and 1.5 pounds of mercury. The report notes that “The reportable quantity of elemental mercury is 1 pound according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency rules.”

The Health Department did immediate measurements of mercury vapor, finding by that point “levels below the worker protection level.” (In other words, the levels they found at that point were considered safe.) They then used a specialized vacuum, designed for mercury cleanup, “to collect all visible beads identified on the floor.”

The Health Department's Rene Franco might have been having flashbacks at that point. In March, 2005—almost exactly eight years to the day—he had been at the same plant dealing with a mercury spill.

In 2005, an employee “had discovered some small beads of mercury in a storage room at the treatment plant. He reported this to his supervisor and after discussing the situation, was instructed to contact the health department.” After an inspection, the Health Department concluded that the mercury must have come from one of the stored mercury-containing electrical switchs in the parts room. The Health Department concluded that “the cleanup would be neither difficult nor complicated but would be time consuming.” They recommended that the City carefully clean the shop from top to bottom, using a highly specialized vacuum provided by the Health Department for the purpose.

Now on March 20, 2013, with the Health Department investigators Piavis and Franco at the plant for the new spill, Sneathen was asked how the spill had been “cleaned” when it had happened. According to the department’s later report, Sneathen told Piavis and Franco that a cleanup had been “attempted using two vacuums that were in the shop.” Both vacuums were still in the shop, apparently not quarantined as potentially hazardous.

According to the Health Department, “The vacuum cleaners would have too many potentially contaminated parts to be effectively cleaned.” This means that, if they had been used in the interim, they had potentially been spreading mercury metal and/or vaporizing the mercury.

Also of concern was the sink where a worker had tried to wash the mercury away the previous year: “The sink had a rough semi-porous surface which would be difficult to effectively clean,” according to the Health Department’s report.

Not finding, at that point, much remaining visible mercury, and not finding dangerous mercury vapor levels—perhaps not surprising after four months of near-random dispersal of the 1 to 1.5 pounds of spill—the Health Department “recommended that management restrict access to the workroom for the weekend and perform several Heat-and-Vent treatments to the work shop.”

“Heat-and-Vent” is a technique used to get rid of mercury that is hard to find or reach after an indoor spill. It takes advantage of the fact that mercury turns to vapor at a relatively low temperature. To “Heat-and-Vent,” you heat up a room where mercury has spilled—with the aim of vaporizing the mercury—and then vent the air out into the atmosphere. This follows an old adage about environmental management of contaminants: “The solution to pollution is dilution.” In this case, you’re turning mercury metal into vapors that are diluted in the outside air.

During its initial investigation, the Health Department found the broken manometer in a stainless steel tub outside, frozen in water. The investigators took both it and the tub. These were “scheduled for disposal through the [health department’s] normal mercury disposal system.”

At about 4 o’clock, Director of Public Works Todd Sneathen wrote to City Manager George Lahanas and Director of Human Resources Shelli Neumann, on his iPhone:

“The Ingham county health department was on site for several hours taking readings and cleaning the equipment and areas that had readings that indicated mercury was still present. This was confined to the maintenance shop. The health department will return on Monday to ensure that readings remain below action levels to ensure the clean up was adequate and no additional action would be necessary. I have talked to all of the employees on the day and afternoon shift to make them aware of the situation and will discuss this with any other employees that were not here today.”

Although Sneathen suggested in this message that the inspection, readings, and cleaning were “confined to the maintenance shop,” in fact the Health Department had had to leave the shop to follow the trail outside—to the stainless steel tub with the broken device, and to a truck that was found to have a stray hose from one of the contaminated vacuum cleaners along with stray beads of mercury on the driver’s seat. Sneathen's message didn't report this.

And although Williams’ report, as forwarded to the Health Department by the DEQ, mentioned that some [of the mercury] was disposed of down the sink, some went down the floor drain, yet more was dumped into dumpsters,” the Health Department did not follow the trail of the contaminated water down the sink's plumbing, nor does it seem to have looked into the troubling question of the dumpsters.

Meanwhile, that afternoon, Neumann (Director of Human Resources) told Lahanas that “Both the Plant Superintendent [Catherine Garnham] and the Maintenance Supervisor [Wayne Beede] were placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation” the City planned to conduct.

We can say for sure that Beede knew about the November spill from the start, since he was the person who accidentally caused it. Sneathen told investigators he had learned of it the day it was reported. But there is no record at all, in the documents I have been given, of when Garnham learned of the spill.

Something else seems to be missing from internal documentation of the matter: If a full investigation by the City was conducted, as the City kept saying would happen—if they did conduct an investigation that tracked exactly where all the mercury went, and traced exactly what might have been contaminated—I can find no evidence of it.

This may explain why it would take another six months—until October, 2014—before two plant workers would realize and report that a hose contaminated in the botched mercury cleanup had been used at the Hannah Community Center to blow out heating coils there.

On Friday, March 21, 2013 the day after the report to DEQ and Ingham County Health finally occurred, the day after the Health Department came and identified that mercury had been spread to the sink, the shop vacs, a hose separated from a shop vac, a truck, an outside tub, and (although they overlooked it beyond the first report) at least one dumpster—the day after the Health Department told the City they would need, in the coming days, to close up the work shop and do a Heat-and-Vent as well as a careful cleanup using the special vacuum and would need to deal with the contaminated equipment like the shop vacs and the sink—the City issued a press release. It began:

“The City of East Lansing’s Wastewater Treatment Plant has undergone the remediation process after a mercury release that occurred last fall.”

It continued:

“On Thursday, March 20 City officials were notified that there was a mercury release at the plant in November 2013. The mercury was released in the plant maintenance area from an air pressure sensing device. The Ingham County Health Department was notified and full remediation occurred at the plant” (emphasis added).

A person reading this would have reasonably assumed that all of the mercury had been taken care of by the time of the press release's issuance.

The City's press release further assured readers: “There is no existing hazard for plant employees or the general public.”

The Heat-and-Vent happened over the next few days. When the Health Department returned the following Monday, they found mercury vapor levels still within levels considered safe. They also found that “The vacuums and terrazzo sink were no longer in the shop.” They don't report where they went. (We'll explain where they went in our next installment.) The Health Department “cleared the work shop for regular occupancy.”

But the very next day, March 25, Sneathen had to call the Health Department back to the plant. “[M]ore loose elemental beads had been found in the workshop.” There was more cleanup, more testing, again clearance.

The same day, March 25, Bill Yocum of the DEQ made sure Sneathen knew what the Health Department also said—that “disposal of [mercury] contaminated items (vacuums, hoses, sink) remained the responsibility of the City of East Lansing.”

Workers from the plant were sent for testing of absorption of mercury. With regard to that move, one statewide expert on poison control remarked in an email to a colleague in the Department of Community Health, “I can see this spiraling into a mess.” Readings four months after the spill would “have minimal meaning now that we are months out.”

Within a couple of weeks, Grace Scott of the DEQ sent out a message to wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) around the state, in response to the East Lansing spill.

“There are quite a few potential sources of mercury at WWTPs,” she warned plant operators.

Scott further cautioned them, “Last year, the improper disposal at a landfill of old equipment containing mercury from a WWTP in Ohio resulted in a clean-up at a cost expected to be greater than a million dollars. . . .This required extraordinary effort and expense for clean-up, and could have been prevented.”


Continue with The Mercurial Trail, Part 4: The Remains of the Day.


UPDATE, February 18, 10 am: The spelling of Neal Wilensky's first name was corrected.