City Manager Did Not Seek to Track Mercury Spill

Thursday, February 21, 2019, 9:15 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

Above: City Manager George Lahanas and reproduction of a photo said by plant workers to show the mercury-leaking manometer left in an outdoor tub for four months.

Results of a new Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request show that City Manager George Lahanas did not order an investigation of where a significant quantity of liquid mercury went when it was spilled at the City’s wastewater treatment plant in November 2013. The spill involved between a pound and a pound-and-a-half of liquid mercury.

FOIA shows that, even after the major mercury spill and its cover up came to light – even after it was known that “loose beads” of mercury had been found, four months after the spill, in various pieces of City-owned equipment, including on the driver’s seat of a truck being driven around the City – the only time Lahanas asked his staff about where the spilled mercury went was when he hoped his staff would challenge ELi’s reporting on the matter.

That was in February 2015. FOIA shows that the City engineer’s response to Lahanas’s 2015 request actually confirmed our reporting, showing that the portion of the mercury that had been fully washed down the drains by plant workers was largely caught by the plant’s system. That system is designed to pull many pollutants out of wastewater before water is returned to the Red Cedar River.

But the wastewater system’s filtration machinery was not the only place mercury ended up. Our in-depth investigation of the matter in 2015 showed that mercury ended up in one or more dumpsters, in shop vacs used to blow out heating vents at the Hannah Community Center, and, in all likelihood, in a local landfill.

In May 2014, a hazardous waste specialty company hired to eventually collect what remained at the plant ended up hauling away 632 pounds of potentially-contaminated waste. That included the contaminated “sink, bags of piping, vacuum cleaners, garbage cans contaminated with mercury.”

Through investigations that led to fines, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) found that the plant had become in effect a hazardous waste site, something it had no license to be.

The spill of mercury had occurred on November 22, 2013, at the hands of Wayne Beede, a maintenance supervisor at the plant. Before the spill, the mercury had been contained in a manometer – an instrument that measures pressure – on a dissolved activated sludge flotation unit.

Workers at the plant had not been adequately trained, as required by law, in hazardous spills management. They used three ordinary vacuums and duct tape to collect the mercury that scattered. Some of the mercury was washed down the drain, with some of it getting caught in a sink trap.

The device that had leaked the mercury was left in a stainless steel tub outside the building, where it was found four months later when the spill was finally reported to authorities. Once authorities moved in, they found evidence of contamination inside the building where the spill had occurred, as well as in numerous other locations.

The person who blew the whistle on the spill was Troy Williams, a plant worker. Williams’s reason for reporting the spill can be summed up in one word: fear. He was scared about having been exposed to mercury, and was by that point also worried about his own exposure to asbestos.

He and other plant workers had found out, by early 2014, that the City had obtained a report in 2007 indicating there was dangerous asbestos in dozens of locations at the plant, including in steam tunnels where workers were told to sweep up insulation dust without being given any protective gear.

In that 2007 report, external consultants had instructed the City to follow the law: mark the locations containing asbestos; train the workers in asbestos-related safety measures; and properly outfit them when they might come into contact with friable asbestos. The City did not act on the report.

Lahanas was Director of Human Resources when the report was ordered, obtained, and not acted on. By the time of the spill, he had risen to the position of City Manager. He defended his handling of the matter in a formal statement in 2015, as workers moved (unsuccessfully) to sue the City for exposure to mercury and asbestos.

ELi reported last Wednesday that the City has now fired Troy Williams, the whistleblower, and that City Council has given Lahanas a contract extension and raise.

At the meeting where Council voted unanimously in support of Lahanas’s contract and raise, Mayor Mark Meadows referred to ELi’s reporting on the mercury and asbestos exposures, as well as to our reporting on the matter of $150,000 in public funds being used to pay for a retaining wall adjoining the City Attorney’s private property, saying Lahanas “did not have anything to do with” either matter.

A year after the spill, Wayne Beede saw his employment at the plant end, with the City of East Lansing paying him $26,450 in a separation agreement. Director of Public Works Todd Sneathen moved on to other employment and was succeeded by Scott House.

Catherine Garnham, who was the wastewater treatment plant supervisor and who appears to have known about the spill during the four-month period of coverup, also ended employment with the City of East Lansing.  She now works as Regional Manager at F&V Operations. In 2016, she was honored by the Michigan Water Environment Association. Her job for F&V includes working on the water treatment system for Flint, Michigan.

 

Update: An unnamed individual using the City of East Lansing Facebook account responded in a comment to this story by writing, "City officials had extensive verbal (phone and in-person) conversations internally about the mercury and proper cleanup when the issue came to light. This story makes the incorrect assumption that those conversations did not happen because they did not happen through email and, therefore, there are no email records."  We did not ask for only email records in our Freedom of Information Act request. We ordered copies of "any and all evidence that City Manager George Lahanas ordered an investigation of where the spilled mercury ended up." The response indicated there was no such evidence.

 

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