The Mercurial Trail, Part 5: The Violations

Friday, February 20, 2015, 9:50 pm
Alice Dreger

Image: the mailbox of the East Lansing Wastewater Treatment Plant

This article picks up from "The Mercurial Trail, Part 4: The Remains of the Day."

On April 18, 2014, five months after the spill and one month after the revelation of it, Bill Yocum, a senior analyst for the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), hand delivered a list of violations to East Lansing’s Director of Public Works Todd Sneathen. Yocum’s report enumerated fifteen problem areas, with subsections listed in many of the fifteen.

Some of the violations came as a result of Yocum’s personal inspection of the site. As we reported in the last installment of this series, when Yocum went out to the plant on April 8, ten days before he issued his report, he found that the plant had simply cordoned off a bunch of the mercury-contaminated equipment without appropriately storing or labeling it:

“Four (one dumpster, one black plastic garbage can, and two black plastic bags) hazardous waste containers were not marked with the words ‘HAZARDOUS WASTE.’” In his report, Yocum named which regulations this violated, and noted as well that “Hazardous waste staged for shipment [to a special clean-up facility] was not packaged in approved containers.” This violated yet more regulations.

A theme in Yocum’s report was that, in failing to adequately manage and cleanup the spill, the wastewater treatment plant had accidentally been turned into a hazardous waste storage facility, which it didn’t have a license to be.  A representative statement from Yocum on this point: “The facility stored and disposed of hazardous waste on-site, and did not have a hazardous waste treatment, storage or disposal facility construction permit and operating license. Specifically, released mercury and clean-up debris was stored on site and released mercury was disposed in a sink drain.”

Yocum’s report also noted what seems to have constituted the root cause of the whole situation: “The facility failed to ensure employees received hazardous waste training.” Even weeks after the spill was finally reported, the Superintendent of the plant and the Director of Public Works did not seem to know how to manage the clean-up and the waste. Yocum gave them literature about what they were supposed to be doing.

Until the problem occurred, although regulations required it of the plant, no emergency coordinator had been named. Emergency contact information had not been posted next to telephones, as required. “Spill control equipment and decontamination equipment were not available in the shop area,” as required.

Perhaps most significantly, “The facility failed to notify the DEQ of a release of hazardous waste on November 22, 2013, which could threaten human health or the environment.” A plant which was designed specifically to deal with environmental management, including especially protection of the Red Cedar River, did not seem to have employees who were aware that a significant mercury spill required consultation with the DEQ.

Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administraion's (MIOSHA's) report—which addressed complaints from “anonymous” on both the mercury spill and alleged long-term asbestos debris exposure of workers at the plant—also found numerous violations. The report of July 9, 2014, from Sundari Murthy, Safety & Health Manager for MOISHA, to Sneathen broke down the problems into five sections of violations, all of them categorized as “serious”:

  • “The employer did not have an emergency response plan but permitted an employee to assist in handling the emergency that was created by a release of mercury during maintenance of a manometer for the Dissolved Activated Sludge Flotation (DAF) unit in the maintenance room which occurred on November 22, 2013.”
  • “A written hazard communication program was not developed, implemented, and/or maintained at the workplace”.
  • “The employer did not inform employees who performed housekeeping activities in areas having presumed asbestos-containing material (PACM) and/or other asbestos-containing material (ACM) of the presence and/or location of PACM and/or other ACM in such areas which might be contracted during such activities.”
  • “[E]mployer failed to provide, within the preceding calendar year, the appropriate asbestos awareness training for all employees engaged in housekeeping areas which contained asbestos-containing materials (ACM) and/or presumed asbestos-containing materials (PACM).”
  • “All surfaces were not maintained as free as practicable of ACM waste and debris and accompanying dust, specifically, tunnel work areas were not maintained as free as practicable of ACM waste, debris and accompanying dust.”

MIOSHA proposed penalizing the City for all this to the tune of $11,000.

In response, Sneathen organized to get the City into compliance. He worked on producing a chemical response plan, a hazard communication plan, and a standard operating procedure for mercury.

Oddly, among the materials submitted as proof that employees were getting hazard communication training was a sign-up sheet for a hazard communication training session that predated the spill—the sign-up sheet that Wayne Beede signed three days before he caused the spill. But Sneathen noted there had also been a new hazard training program, conducted in April 2014, the sign-up sheet for which was signed by all employees of the Wastewater Treatment Plant except Wayne Beede and Superintendent Catherine Garnham, both of whom soon ended their employment with the City.

On behalf of the City, Sneathen also told MIOSHA that signs had been posted “at entrances with assumed asbestos containing materials and training was performed” to educate workers at the plant about asbestos and its dangers. He informed MIOSHA that “a certified asbestos contractor has been on site to remove any debris from surfaces and repair damaged asbestos,” attaching invoices for those contracted services.

In the end, the City settled with MIOSHA for $4,400 instead of $11,000. A check was cut on August 1, 2014. By then, Sneathen had given notice that he would be leaving the City to take another job. With regard to getting the check cut for the MIOSHA fine, he asked City staff member Joy Ketchum “Please charge this to 590.40.4556.7601 if you can.”

According to Finance Director Mary Haskell, this code means the payment of the fine was to come out of the account number that breaks down to be: Sewer Fund (590), Public Works (40), Wastewater Treatment Plant (4556), Insurance, Bonds and Claims (7601).

But the saga of the mercurial trail was still not over. Two months later, the City would suddenly find out the waste had worked its way to Hannah Community Center.


The story continues in The Mercurial Trail, Part 6: Blown Out.