The Mercurial Trail, Part 1: The Spill

Monday, February 16, 2015, 6:42 pm
By: 
Alice Dreger

Image: Layout of the East Lansing Wastewater Treatment Plant, courtesy of City of East Lansing

Even if you don’t know where the East Lansing Wastewater Treatment Plant is by sight, you may know its location by smell. If you’re turning off of southbound 127 onto Trowbridge Road and it’s a warm day, you can often smell the sewage just as you round the curve. The formal address of the plant is 1700 Trowbridge Road.

The Wastewater Treatment Plant is a critical part of our local infrastructure. According to the City’s website, every day that plant processes 12.6 million gallons of wastewater, including sewage from East Lansing, MSU, and Meridian Charter Township. It takes in “influent” waste, processes it through a series of treatments, and sends the solid wastes out to landfill. The cleaned “effluent” water gets dumped into the Red Cedar River.

On November 22, 2013, the Friday before Thanksgiving, a workshop accident happened at the plant. As can be ascertained from what City staff would later tell City Council, in the maintenance shop of the plant, a maintenance supervisor named Wayne Beede accidentally broke a device that contained mercury.

That device was a manometer—an instrument that measures pressure—on a dissolved activated sludge flotation unit. According to a plant worker’s later report, when the device broke, “the liquid mercury scattered.”

Only three days before the spill, nine plant employees, including Beede, signed a form saying they had completed “Hazard Communication Training.” Yet when the mercury spill occurred, instead of reporting it as required by health and environmental safety regulations, Beede (and possibly others) tried to simply clean it up.

According to the worker who finally reported it four months later, a supervisor at the plant—probably Beede—“used 3 different vacuums to vacuum up liquid mercury.” These were ordinary shop vacs, not the kind of specialized vacuum that is used for mercury management. Along with the vacuuming, “some [of the mercury] was disposed of down the sink, some went down the floor drain, yet more was dumped into dumpsters.”

It’s hard to know how many people were tracking through the spilled material at the plant in the four months between the spill and the official report of it. According to what one City human resources worker later told another, “Employees received different amounts of exposure—several of them bagged up the equipment to remove it. Others tried to use duct tape to remove small pieces. All of our employees (maintenance & lab) had access to the area and probably walked through it daily.”

If the situation had been handled appropriately, we might know just how much mercury was spilled. Later investigations estimated that the device probably originally contained around 1 to 1.5 pounds of mercury, most or all of which was probably discharged when it was broken. To give some visual perspective, if a pound came out of the device, that would have looked like about 2 to 3 tablespoons of mercury scattering about.

Why did the manometer contain mercury? Mercury is a useful chemical for measuring temperature and pressure; many of us recall growing up with mercury home thermometers. But mercury, as we’ve learned over the last several decades, can be a dangerous substance to humans and other animals, particularly if it is inhaled in its gaseous form or if it gets into the food chain. A small amount of mercury can contaminate a whole lake. Mercury is also tricky because it gives off vapor at room temperature.

All this means that spills—especially relatively large spills near people and near rivers—have to be taken very seriously.

Whatever occurred in that Hazard Communication Training three days before the spill, it was obviously inadequate either in information about requirements or persuasion about the risks of mercury. And the plant wasn’t just supposed to be training people in communication, but also in hazard management. It wasn’t. According to a later investigation by the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA), the plant “did not have an emergency response plan but permitted an employee to assist in handling the emergency that was created” by the spill.

Thus, instead of properly handling the broken manometer, after the spill the device was simply placed by someone in a stainless steel tub and left outside the building. The tub filled with water, and in the cold of the winter, froze solid. That’s where the Health Department would find it, frozen, four months later.

At that point, the Health Department investigators "could not determine [the] make/model of the manometer nor estimate the quantity of mercury originally contained or lost."

 

Read what happened next in The Mercurial Trail, Part 2: "The Spill Spreads."

 

UPDATE: This article was corrected on February 17, 2015, at 1:45 pm to note that the time elapsed between the spill and the report of it was four months, not five.

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