The Mercurial Trail, Part 4: The Remains of the Day

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Thursday, February 19, 2015, 12:11 am
Alice Dreger

Image: A Granger dumpster (not the one involved in the mercury spill) at East Lansing’s Waste Water Treatment Plant

The article picks up from "The Mercurial Trail, Part 3: The Call."

There is still much to report in the tale what happened following a spill of one to one-and-a-half pounds of liquid mercury at the Waste Water Treatment Plant in November, 2013. This includes what happened at the Hannah Community Center, including misrepresentations made by City staff to City Council and to the public in relation to those events. It also includes what MIOSHA ultimately found. We will be reporting these parts of The Mercurial Trail in the coming days.

But today’s installment takes us to the end of one critical part of the story: where all that mercury went.

To review, when the mercury came spilling out of the broken manometer onto a work table in the maintenance shop of the plant, it scattered all over the place. (That’s what mercury does.)

One or more workers at the shop tried to clean it up using ordinary shop vacs and duct tape. The use of the shop vacs probably vaporized some of the mercury. Some part of the “cleaned-up” liquid mercury went in a dumpster or dumpsters. The broken manometer went into a stainless steel tub and was put outside the building. Someone also flushed an unknown quantity of the mercury down a sink. Some of it also seems to have gone down a drain in the floor. There is a hint in the original report to the DEQ that some of the spilled mercury was captured and stored in “canisters” in the shop.

This means that within a few minutes of the spill, the following material items came into contact with the mercury:

  • the broken manometer;
  • the table on which it broke;
  • the stainless steel tub into which the manometer was placed outside;
  • two or maybe three shop vacs, and possibly their attachments, including hoses;
  • duct tape;
  • one or more dumpsters;
  • the sink and its plumbing;
  • the floor drain;
  • the water flushed down with the mercury;
  • the shop floor
  • and possibly canisters.


A list like this—representing a fast and disorganized dispersal of hazardous material that took only a few minutes—tells you why MIOSHA and other state-level agencies require proper training of plant employees in hazardous waste management.

Before we get to what we know about what happened with all of those routes of dispersal, it’s worth noting that in none of the official reports is there a detailed list like this, inventorying all the different items the mercury came into contact with as it dispersed.

Perhaps the failure to create such a list explains why—with the exception of Todd Sneathen, Director of Public Works, and Catherine Garnham, superintendent of the wastewater plant—top managers in the City seemed never to fully understand, that when the Health Department inspectors came in on March 20, 2014, they did not do anything like “full abatement.”

City Manager George Lahanas, Assistant City Manager Tim Dempsey, Director of Human Resources Shelli Neumann—based on what they would later say, and based on what they would not say—appear not to have grasped what the Health Department investigators and the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) inspector officially told Sneathen: “Disposal of contaminated items (vacuums, hoses, sink [etc.]), remained the responsibility of the City of East Lansing.”

But if Lahanas, Dempsey, and Neumann didn’t understand that full abatement did not occur via the Health Department on March 20, if they didn’t understand that that abatement had to be done the City, that would be surprising. Because that key statement—“Disposal of contaminated items (vacuums, hoses, sink [etc.]), remained the responsibility of the City of East Lansing”—was the concluding line of the official report of the spill from the Health Department.

And that was a document Lahanas, Dempsey, and Neumann passed around repeatedly.

Here’s what happened with the various contaminated materials:

Whatever was immediately dumped in a dumpster (the contents of the shop vacs? the contaminated duct tape?) may have been inadvertently been picked up by Granger as normal waste and dumped in their landfill. As we previously reported, when he learned of the botched cleanup at the plant four months after the spill, Sneathen personally contacted Keith Granger, the CEO of Granger waste management, to offer to pay for medical testing of three Granger employees who had been at the plant and might have been exposed to mercury. Sneathen does not appear to have mentioned any possibllity like this to the authorities, and no one followed that trail so far as I can tell.

The water that went down the sink with some of the mercury ended up with the rest of the City’s wastewater at the plant. As we previously reported, it seemed to cause a spike in the level of mercury in influent wastewater, based on a reading taken two and a half weeks later. The standard pollutant-removal system at the plant seems to have pulled out most of the mercury; the effluent reading from two and a half weeks after the spill shows a typically low level of mercury.

I have asked the current plant superintendent, Paul Stokes, which system the plant uses for mercury removal and he hasn’t answered. But an email message from Jerald O. Thaler of FTCH, an engineering firm, to Garnham on March 28, 2014, suggests it ended up pulled out into “biosolids” disposed of elsewhere: “The fact that it [the mercury] was released into the recycle [water] stream is a good thing, since most of it was removed and transferred to the biosolids rather than being discharged to the river.”

The broken manometer was put in a stainless steel tub outside the building. When the Health Department was finally called in four months later, their inspectors took the manometer and the tub for hazardous waste disposal. Whether mercury leaked out of that tub into the environment was never investigated as a possibility so far as I can ascertain.

The Health Department final report repeats the original report by Troy Williams to the DEQ which said that, “Much of the beads/mercury remains in the maintenance room in canisters (1-2 tbls).” If these mysterious “canisters” did contain 1-2 tablespoons of mercury, that would be upwards of half of what was originally spilled. I can’t find any further reference to anyone checking “canisters,” unless this is a reference to the shop vacs’ “canisters.”

Whether two or three shop vacuums were originally or ultimately involved remains unclear. The original DEQ report, taken verbally from Troy Williams, says there were three shop vacs involved in the original cleanup. The Health Department report says Sneathen told the inspectors there were two shop vacs, both still in the shop when the inspectors arrived.

While on site the first time, the Health Department inspectors learned that a hose from one of the supposedly-original two shop vacs was connected to a third vac, and that hose was retrieved from a truck found to have mercury beads on the driver’s seat. This probably explains why they recommend hazardous waste-type disposal of three shop vacs in their report, but I’m not sure.

Some number of vacuums and their parts were bagged by the Health Department on March 20, 2014, the day of the original inspection, and left at the plant. What happened to them at that point?

On March 29, Director of Public Works Todd Sneathen wrote to Catherine Garnham, Superintendent of the Plant, “After I had dinner last night, I decided to better secure the three bags that had contaminated material so, I bought a garbage can, paint and duct tape. I put the bags in this container painted it and duct taped it closed. It is near the dumpster and it should not be moved until we figure out this situation.” Those bags and that garbage can probably were where some or all of the vacuums ended up at that point.

On April 7, a Monday, Garnham wrote to Sneathen, “FYI – the dumpster, trash can and bag with shop vac were completely tarped Friday. The tarp was tied down with cord and had a pallet on top in case of wind. This morning the tarp was off; I don’t think the wind got strong enough to blow off the pallet and rip off the cord, so someone may have been in that stuff. I directed Keith to re-secure the tarp, etc. but thought you should know in case something comes up later.”

The next day, April 8, Bill Yocum, a Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) inspector, showed up at the plant. According to a message from Garnham to Sneathen, “Mr. Yocum’s primary reason for coming on-site was to take pictures of the material that was outside of the dumpster under the tarp. He did not open the containers. I told him that the two contractor garbage bags contained a shop vacuum [only one?] and its attachments, and the small garbage can contained items that you had removed from the dumpster in order to ascertain what materials had been discarded.”

Finding this situation, Yocum wrote a scathing report naming numerous violations regarding failure to appropriately store, mark, and monitor hazardous waste. Yocum noted that the failure “to accumulate hazardous waste in a manner which prevents escape, directly or indirectly, by gravity to soil, surface water, groundwater, drains or sewers” could lead to environmental contamination.

Yocum’s report also noted “at least one vacuum cleaner with accessories believed to have been contaminated with mercury is not accounted for. Ingham County Health Department advises they removed only the manometer and did not take any other devices. This vacuum may be in the dumpster, but this could not be determined on either March 25 or April 8 2014.”

Yocum also found the contaminated sink in the dumpster. This sink weighed about 200 pounds and was made of a porous “terrazzo-like” substance. While much attention was paid to the sink in the coming weeks, remarkably little seems to have been paid to its trap.

This is significant because mercury is about 13 times as dense as water, meaning that if you flush mercury down a sink, a good bit of it will get caught in the trap. According to a source connected to a source at the plant, when the sink was pulled, a good deal of mercury was indeed found in the trap. It’s unclear who pulled the sink and what happened to that mercury.

The sink and its drain (but not, apparently, the trap) ended up being tested by Fibertec at the request of Garnham and Sneathen in the coming week. While the two had been hoping the sink would come up “clean,” it did not. In fact, Fibertec found, at their April 17, 2014 inspection—a month after the initial Health Department investigation—that every surface it tested, from the sink to the shop table (still in the shop) to the shop floor, was contaminated with mercury.

Around the inside of the sink drain, the wipe test showed a mercury level 42 times the reportable limit. One test on the edge of the sink showed the same result. The floor under the table showed a level 8.5 times the reportable limit. The table still in the shop showed a reading 11 times the reportable limit.

But in its report to the City, Fibertec decided these contaminations in the shop were not a problem for the City, because the Health Department, which had come earlier, had not said these issues had to be taken care of. Yet, in fact, the Health Department hadn't checked surfaces for contamination except for visual inspection; they checked the air levels. Both the Health Department and DEQ had made clear contaminated equipment would be the responsibility of the City to identify and deal with. It appears that is part of the reason the City ordered the Fibertech wipe tests--to see if equipment was contaminated.

So even though Fibertec concluded that “The table and Maintenance Shop have detectable mercury present” that, according to their own reports, exceeded “reportable levels” by many times, “Fibertec IHS [Industrial Hygiene Services] believes that no further action is mandated for the table and floor.” The City doesn't seem to have reported the problem to anyone, nor did they move to decontaminate the floor, the table, etc.

In response to these results, Sneathen wrote to Garnham, “It appears obvious from this report based on the test results that the shop is not a problem and the only thing that needs follow up is what to do with the sink.”

By the time the formal Fibertec report came back, in May, the sink and some other contaminated materials had been secured indoors, per the DEQ requirements, specifically in an old chlorine storage building. The sink was in a dumpster, which had also been moved indoors. Workers at the plant were growing increasingly fearful of going near the contaminated materials. When Garnham had needed the sink lifted out of the dumpster for Fibertec’s testing, she reported to Sneathen that the workers didn’t want to do it.

Eventually, in late April, Garnham started to track down companies authorized to haul away hazardous material like mercury-contaminated equipment. She also reported to Sneathen that the waste had by then been properly marked and stored and was being inspected weekly for leaks as required by regulations.

Before she could secure a contractor to take away the materials, on May 1, 2014, Garnham gave two weeks’ notice of her resignation. In her time remaining at the plant, she continued to work on finding a contractor to take away the materials.

On May 7, she described the contaminated materials to the company EQ as consisting “of three (3) shop vacuums used in an attempt to clean up the mercury, their attachments, and a terrazzo sink (approximately 200 pounds) and associated drain line. Two of the vacuum cleaners and attachments are double wrapped in contractor garbage bags and sealed into plastic garbage cans with lids (3), and the sink and the third vacuum are bagged / wrapped inside of a dumpster.”

She said that after those items were hauled off, they would check the garbage remaining in the dumpster (presumably put in the dumpster between the original spill and the time the dumpster became an intentional hazardous waste dumping zone?) as well as the dumpster for contamination. She said that if the remainder was all shown to be mercury-free, they would “dispose of it as general waste, and then have the dumpster removed as scrap metal.”

EQ sent an estimate of about $3,000 on May 13, three days before Garnham’s departure. Sneathen gave notice of his own impending resignation about a month later. Before he left the City, he wanted the contaminated waste gone. On July 16, 2014, he wrote to Director of Human Resources Shelly Neumann that EQ would be coming the next day to pick up “mercury debris.”

Sneathen told Neumann, “As you can see below, they can pick up the waste tomorrow. I am not sure if I will be able to be there, but I will make sure someone is available. I want this taken care of.”

On July 17, 2014, EQ came to the plant and picked up a total of 632 pounds of waste. The invoice came to $3,943.76. The invoice describes the content as being “sink, bags of piping, vacuum cleaners, garbage cans contaminated with mercury.”

Sneathen left for another job on August 22, 2014.

For reasons that aren’t clear, in early October, 2014—about a week before the report about the contaminated hose having been used in Hannah back in March—Fibertec came out to the wastewater treatment plant to do a “dumpster evaluation.”

According to their report of October 20, 2014, they “collected two samples of general debris and trash within the waste dumpster.” They found no detectable level of mercury.

According to our source closely connected to a source at the plant, the dumpster is still there. Granger, they say, doesn’t want it back.


Go to The Mercurial Trail, Part 5: The Violations. © 2013-2020 East Lansing Info