The Mercurial Trail, Part 7: Squelching Rumors

Monday, February 23, 2015, 6:00 am
Alice Dreger

Image: The front doors of Hannah Community Center

This article picks up from "The Mercurial Trail, Part 6: Blown Out."

Three days after two plant employees informed the new plant superintendent, Paul Stokes, that a mercury-contaminated shop vacuum had been used at the Hannah Community Center six months earlier (in March 2014), Director of Human Resources Shelli Neumann was the one who finally called the Ingham County Health Department on behalf of the City of East Lansing to report it.

That was Friday, October 10, 2014. The Community Center stayed open over the weekend, with no formal notification of the situation to the public or the Hannah staff.

On Monday morning, October 13, two County Health inspectors came out to do air testing for mercury vapor. They found no significant levels. Everyone in the know who was talking about it on email agreed that by then, whatever mercury had been transferred from the wastewater plant’s contaminated vacuum equipment to the heating coils at Hannah would have vaporized.

After the Health inspectors finished their site visit, Neumann wrote to City Manager George Lahanas to let him know the inspectors “stated that there is no reason for further follow up.” She added, “It should be noted that there is no way of predicting or calculating what the mercury vapor levels were at the time of the event in March 2014.”

Lahanas passed Neumann’s message on to City Council, but still did not advise the public of what had occurred at that point. In fact, it was the Health Department who recommended that the City “draft a letter to its employees/residents giving a brief description of the possible mercury exposure at Hannah and subsequent air testing.” Neumann passed this recommendation on to Lahanas and others, noting that “The thought is that this would allow us to get on top of this issue and hopefully squelch rumors or a snowballing effect.”

As City staff advised Council of the working-up of a public notice, Councilmember Ruth Beier started to ask questions: “Why didn’t we follow the after-spill use of the shop vac when we did our initial investigation after learning of the spill? Why are we just finding this out now? Where is the shop vac now? I swim at Hannah on most days. Even more importantly, my spanking new grandchild swam there this summer.”

Beier asked for a timeline including dates of “mercury spill (amount, location, cause, how it was cleaned up),” dates of reporting, “investigations and findings,” personnel changes in response to the fiasco, and so on.

Lahanas wrote back to Beier, “My understanding is that we had the professionals from public health take the samples and they determined the location.” Apparently, almost a year after the original spill, the City Manager still did not understand what had happened at the plant, including that the Health Department had not done a complete tracing of the mercury nor a complete clean-up.

By then, Lahanas might have been expected to understand this key fact; the DEQ and MIOSHA reports had taken the City sharply to task for mismanagement of the whole “cleanup” scene, not only the original spill. The City had had to pay MIOSHA fines and to deal with the DEQ’s notice of violations over the spill. Moreover, the timeline of “personnel changes” provided to Council by Lahanas’s staff included the resignations of plant superintendent Catherine Garnham and Director of Public Works Todd Sneathen, suggesting their understanding was that those major resignations were somehow tied to the mercury issue.

While the staff worked on getting better answers to Beier, in the letter being drafted for the public, Director of Human Resources Shelli Neumann changed the original reference to a shop vac being used at Hannah to specify that only a hose from a contaminated shop vac had been used there. It is unclear why Neumann believed it was only a hose and not a contaminated wastewater plant vacuum as well.

Also unclear is who among the City staff wrote the longer, also factually incorrect responses to Beier’s questions. These responses were sent along to Beier and the rest of Council by Tim Dempsey, Lahanas’s right-hand man.

Beier had asked, “Why didn’t we follow the after-spill use of the shop vac when we did our initial investigation after learning of the spill?”

The truth was there had been no deep or broad City investigation of the spill. But Beier was told, “The two shop vacuums that were used to clean up the initial mercury spill in November remained at the WWTP the entire time. The hose from a contaminated shop vacuum was removed approximately two days prior to the March 20, 2014, clean-up by the Ingham County Health Department and used on another uncontaminated shop vacuum. All three shop vacuums, including the hoses, were identified and disposed of during the health department visit on March 20, 2014.”

In fact, as we’ve previously reported, the Health Department didn’t identify a third vacuum on that date, and most certainly did not “dispose of” the vacuums during the March visit. The contaminated vacuums were not removed from the plant until July, and it is unclear how City staff could have known where the equipment was between November and March—or even which pieces of equipment were contaminated—when no full investigation tracking all the parts was ever done.

Yet City staff went on to tell Beier on October 16, 2014, “Three shop vacuums (including hoses) were properly disposed of on March 20, 2014 during the Health Department’s initial clean-up.” Staff also told Council, “The employee reported that the contaminated hose was only used at Hannah Community Center.” If that is true, I can find no record to support this claim.

Staff spent the next several days working and reworking the wording of the short letter to Hannah users and Hannah staff, to convey a sense of resolution and calm. They began also drafting a press release that began: “City of East Lansing and public health officials have taken appropriate action steps in addressing a public health matter at the East Lansing Hannah Community Center.”

The press release went on to say that only a hose had been used, that the hose “may have contained a small amount of mercury,” and that the heating coils cleaned were not connected to the rest of the building’s heating system.

The press release was drafted to close with the news that “The City of East Lansing and ICHD [Ingham County Health Department] have issued a joint letter to ELHCC employees and patrons to disclose the incident and the results of testing.” But while the Health Department ultimately agreed to review the letter, it would not agree to co-sign it.

In the interim between the drafting and actual release of the letter five days later, the staff at Hannah got to talking among themselves about the situation and apparently became increasingly agitated. Said Neumann to Lahanas and Dempsey on October 17, “it is my recommendation that we do not email until Monday. I am particularly hesitant to release this letter until we can get our Hannah leadership in an appropriate mindset that will not intensify the situation when the public is made aware.”

City leaders decided to bring in a consultant from Fibertec to Hannah to “alleviate and address” the “concerns” of the staff at Hannah. Readers of this series may recall that Fibertec was the company that in April 2014 found continued contamination of the plant maintenance shop, a month after the Health Department’s investigation, but that suggested no additional action as a result.

But Fibertec must have been persuasive in its educational forum on Monday, October 20, with the Hannah staff. A staff member at Hannah who attended the Fibertec informational reported back to Lahanas “It went very well this afternoon. Philip Peterson [of Fibertec] was a tremendous help and made all the difference.”

Because City staff kept reworking the letter to Hannah staff and patrons, yet another weekend passed before the public was notified of what Stokes had learned on October 7. The released letter would ultimately be dated October 17, but it was not released until October 20. The press release was delayed yet another week.

When the letter did go out, on October 20, rather than mailing it to all registered Hannah patrons as was originally discussed, the City decided that would be too expensive. City management opted instead for emailing a note to those patrons whose email was included in their Hannah membership information.

Dempsey explained to Council the staff had decided to “delay” the letter over the weekend “until Monday [October 20] in order to ensure that we are prepared to handle what we expect to be a large number of inquiries.”

But a large number of inquiries does not seem to have materialized. Perhaps that is because the letter was so reassuring.

In the records I have obtained, the only sign of any member of the public asking follow-up questions are my own emails to Lahanas, asking questions as an ELi reporter: “1. Why didn’t you immediately notify the public when you discovered the issue of the shop-vac so that they could avoid the community center immediately if they wished to do so? . . . Why have you opted to selectively notify residents?”

Lahanas told me I hadn’t been notified because “It appears that you did not provide an email when you registered [as a member of the community center gym] (or perhaps you provided one that was not entered?)”

He added, “Also to clarify, the shop vac was not used in Hannah. Only the hose from the shop vac was used.”

How Lahanas could know that seemed unclear to me. So I sent back more questions, specifically, “Where was the vacuum hose between the spill that occurred in November 2013 and when it was used at Hannah in March 2013? . . . Was it used during that time anywhere besides Hannah? . . . What exactly happened to the vacuum (the suctioning machine) that was used in conjunction with the hose from the time of the improper clean-up through today? . . .  Is there any other equipment that was used for the improper clean-up? If so, what? And what happened to it?”

Lahanas did not answer these questions.

About a month and a half later, I decided to use the Freedom of Information Act to get as many internal documents as possible, to find out the answers to those questions. This series has been the result.


This article concludes the series called The Mercurial Trail. ELi will continue to report follow-up to this story as it occurs.