City Manager Defends Handling of Mercury and Asbestos Problems

Wednesday, March 4, 2015, 8:00 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

Image: photo apparently showing the mercury-leaking manometer in an outside open tub, where it was left for months following the spill; there also appears to be a thermometer in the tub. Details below.

At City Council last night, City Manager George Lahanas read a prepared statement defending his administration’s handling of the mercury spill and asbestos problems at the Wastewater Treatment Plant. Noting that the City is being sued by workers at the plant, Lahanas said he wanted to offer a public account of what had happened and to reassure the public about the City’s dedication to safety and environmental stewardship.

In his statement, which will be posted at the City's website, Lahanas said that the City had concluded “that no employee suffered any injury and there was no detectable damage to the environment” from the mercury spill and bungled “clean-up” in November, 2013 at the Wastewater Treatment Plant. He said that all employees who had been tested “show no adverse impact” and that “there was no detectable damage to the environment.”

Lahanas did not specifically address ELi’s finding that mercury levels in the wastewater influent suddenly spiked after mercury was washed down the plant’s drains during the unsafe cleanup. As we have reported, two-and-a-half weeks after the spill the reading of the “clean” effluent water being dumped into the Red Cedar River showed a typically low level of mercury. But because there was a two-and-a-half week gap between the mercury being washed down the drain and the mercury readings taken at the plant, it seems to remain unclear from those readings whether the spill resulted in any damage to the Red Cedar River environment. The plant's system is designed to remove mercury automatically from wastewater before dumping the "clean" water into the Red Cedar River, so in practice, the spike of mercury caused by the flushing of it down the plant's shop sink should have been handled by the treatment system in place. (Plant Superintendent Paul Stokes has not answered ELi's questions about what system of mercury removal is used at the plant.)

Additionally, as ELi has reported, there is no evidence that the City, the Health Department, MIOSHA, or the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) ever traced all the ways the mercury went. Today, Neal Wilensky, attorney for the workers suing the City, provided to ELi the photo shown above which he says shows the manometer (the mercury-containing device which was the origin of the spill) which was left in the tub outside the shop for months.

The photo seems to confirm what the Health Department report said: that the outside tub into which the mercury-leaking manometer had been put, as part of the fumbled clean-up, had filled with water and frozen. It appears from the photo that it is possible mercury could have leaked out of the tub. While the Health Department removed the manometer and outside tub when they did the investigation in March 2014, no agency seems to have tested the soil around where the tub had been to see if mercury had leaked out into the environment from that tub.

A careful accounting by ELi, based on internal documents, shows that the following equipment was probably contaminated in the improper clean-up and subsequent spreading of mercury:

  • the manometer that contained the mercury originally (removed four months after the spill by the Health Department);
  • the table onto which the mercury was spilled (still in the shop?);
  • the stainless steel tub into which the manometer was placed outside (removed four months after the spill by the Health Department);
  • two or possibly three shop vacs and their attachments (removed eight months after the spill, four months after the Health Department’s investigation);
  • duct tape used to clean up the mercury (possibly dumped and hauled away, based on communications with Granger);
  • the shop sink and its plumbing, including the trap (removed eight months after the spill, four months after the Health Department’s investigation);
  • the floor drain (still at the shop);
  • the shop floor (still at the shop);
  • possible “canisters” of some type (based on a vague reference in the original report);
  • a truck in which contaminated vacuum equipment was found along with loose mercury beads on the driver’s seat in March 2014, four months after the spill.

 

Additionally, we have now determined, by comparing various Health Department communications, there may have been an additional contaminated “tub” involved, inside the shop, that went untracked. And, as we previously reported, "no one seemed to have any records or full knowledge of how the contaminated vacuums and their parts had been used in the four months that followed the botched cleanup." What we know is that some of that contaminated equipment was accidentally used at the Hannah Community Center. Whether it was used anywhere else in the city remains unclear.

Lahanas referred in his report to Council last night to an internal personnel investigation conducted by the City when the spill came to light in March 2014, but he did not explain why he thinks this potentially contaminated equipment was tracked and dealt with appropriately.

He told Council last night that MIOSHA had come in “and conducted a thorough investigation and made recommendations regarding the appropriate clean up and safety precautions to ensure against future incidents.” But while MIOSHA recommended appropriate clean-up, reports from the Health Department and the DEQ made clear it was the City’s responsibility to clean up the contamination.

Yet as ELi has reported, when the DEQ came to investigate in April 2014, after the Health Department’s investigation in March 2014, it found the City engaged in seriously improper storage of identified hazardous waste. Additionally, as we reported, an investigation also in April 2014 by Fibertec, an outside consultant, found every surface it tested, from the sink to the shop table to the shop floor, was contaminated with mercury. The shop table and floor retained levels of mercury many times the reportable level, but this appears never to have been reported to the authorities because of the assumption (incorrect) that the Health Department had “cleaned up” the whole situation the month earlier.

Based on our findings, City management seems to have been slow to grasp the seriousness of the situation and slow to understand the regulations. Whether the City Manager has ever fully understood that it was the City’s responsibility to manage the clean-up remains unclear.

Lahanas assured Council that things have improved, giving as an example that when an employee found what appeared to be mercury in December of 2014, the finding was appropriately handled. This shows, he says, that the safety systems are now working. (The Health Department found no mercury when they arrived to investigate.)

He did not explain why, in October 2014, City Council was improperly told by City staff that the Health Department had cleaned up the whole situation in March 2014.

Lahanas told Council last night, “Unfortunately some mistakes were made but we are confident that we have learned from the mistakes and made all necessary corrections.”

On the matter of asbestos, Lahanas alluded to a 2007 investigation of asbestos by Fibertec Industrial Hygiene Services at the Wastewater Treatment Plant, saying “It appears that the survey may not have been properly shared with staff and the signage [meant to mark where asbestos was present] did not meet all MIOSHA expectations.”

ELi has now obtained the 2007 Fibertec report via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA); see the cover letter for it here. That report found clear evidence of “damaged” and “friable known and assumed asbestos-containing materials,” meaning that the kind of loose asbestos that can be a danger to workers’ health was present.

In 2007, Fibertec recommended that the city “Notify the building occupants, custodians, maintenance personnel and others” who might encounter the dangerous asbestos of its presence. Fibertec also noted that “maintenance or repair personnel may need to utilize personal protective equipment or other engineering controls and comply with the provisions of various asbestos regulations.” The company also recommended appropriate training, labeling of hazards, and abatement.

According to the lawsuit brought by City employees who work at the plant, the City failed to notify the workers of these findings and failed to appropriately safeguard the workers’ health.

When MIOSHA did an investigation in response to complaints made in 2014, MIOSHA found numerous violations regarding asbestos, including failure to label asbestos hazards, failure to train workers, and failure to abate active problems.

Lahanas told Council last night that outside experts are being hired to do a full review of safety policies at the plant. He said that the new leadership at the Department of Public Works and at the Wastewater Treatment Plant is well qualified to manage these areas for the City.

 

UPDATE, March 4, 2014, 11:45 am: The City has now posted Lahanas's statement.