The Mercurial Trail, Part 6: Blown Out

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Sunday, February 22, 2015, 5:00 am
Alice Dreger

Image: a vestibule at the Hannah Community Center

This article picks up from "The Mercurial Trail, Part 5: The Violations."

The subject line on Paul Stokes’ email alert to the upper ranks of City management—“Past mercury concern”—didn’t quite capture the volatility of the situation, a volatility that seems to have quickly become clear to the City Manager.

Stokes, hired to take over as superintendent of the East Lansing Wastewater Treatment Plant after Catherine Garnham’s resignation, was writing on October 9, 2014, a Thursday, to report that the “past mercury concern” had risen again. His message was directed at City Manager George Lahanas, Director of Human Resources Shelli Neumann, and acting Director of Public Works Ron Lacasse, who took over after Todd Sneathen resigned.

Stokes’ email began this way:

“Tuesday this week I was informed by [wastewater plant] employees Ryan Ebbinghaus and Troy Williams of an activity that took place months ago involving a mercury contaminated shop vacuum. Supposedly a shop vacuum that had been used to clean up the infamous mercury spill [in November 2013] was used by Ryan to ‘blow out’ heating coils at the Hannah [Community] Center. This happened prior to the official clean-up that took place after the Health Department was involved. Their concern is that the air may have never been tested for mercury vapors. Said they had informed Mr. Sneathen of this activity at the time of the official clean-up here at the Plant.”

These “heating coils” were basically space heaters used in vestibules at the Hannah Community Center. The “blowing out” had been conducted to clean the heating coils. This is significant because mercury can vaporize when it is warmed above room temperature. So if any mercury was in the vacuum equipment that was used to “blow out” the coils, and the mercury then remained on or near the coils, when the coils were heated some or all of the mercury would have likely vaporized and contaminated the air in the vestibules, until Hannah users’ opening and closing of doors eventually vented the contaminated air out.

Stokes’ message continued on to say that he had no evidence anyone had ever tested Hannah during the March 2014 investigation of the spill. “At this point in time it would be fruitless as any mercury vapors would be gone. Even if small droplets were actually discharged, they would probably be evaporated by now.”

Stokes closed, “I bring this to your attention since there seems to be continuing employee contact with MIOSHA regarding [the] asbestos issue. Would not be surprised [if] the next visit from MIOSHA involves mercury too.”

Stokes’ message suggests not only that plant employees’ dissatisfaction about management’s attention to their own wellbeing continued, but that Stokes—like other key staff members in the City—seemed to be laboring under the misassumption that an “official clean-up” of mercury had taken place at the plant “after the Health Department was involved.”

As we’ve shown in previous reports, in fact no one ever traced the various ways mercury was dispersed; the shop floor and table continued to show evidence of mercury contamination a month after the health department’s visit; and the DEQ found management of what waste was identified to be in violation of numerous hazardous waste regulations. Any assumption that the situation had been “cleaned up” properly in March 2014 when the Health Department arrived was simply wrong.

In response to Stokes’ message, Lahanas suggested calling the Ingham County Health Department to Hannah to test the air, “to ensure safety for both building visitors and employees.” County Health was called the next day.

Human Resources Director Shelli Neumann, meanwhile, looked back at an “interview” with Ryan Ebbinghaus and found “he never stated that he had any concerns with the mercury spill. He never mentioned the use of the vacuum” at Hannah.

But when Neumann contacted Sneathen about the revelation, Sneathen reported that “he was aware that the shop vacuum was removed from Ebinghaus’s [sic] truck in March when the mercury issue came to light; however, there is no record as to where and when that vaccum [sic] had been used between November (date of the mercury spill) and March (the report of the mercury spill).”

Now, as we’ll show in more depth in the next installment in this series, when this matter became public about another week later, the City would speak as if the Hannah vent “blow out” had been the only post-spill problematic use of this vacuum equipment in the City of East Lansing.

But as Neumann’s conversation with Sneathen showed, and as internal documents seem to confirm, in fact 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.

When the Health Department came to the plant in March 2014, four months after the spill, the vacuums were still in the plant’s maintenance shop, with one vacuum hose now in a wastewater treatment plant truck. (This was, according to later assumptions, the hose used at Hannah.) But how and where else these vacuums and their parts had been used from November 2013 to March 2014 is completely unclear.

We now know at least one hose from at least one vacuum had been used at Hannah, but it seems hard to believe—given that at least two vacuums were still un-quarantined in the shop in March when the Health Department arrived; given that a hose from a vacuum was found in a truck (with visible mercury beads) in March—the coil-cleaning at Hannah was the only other instance of improper use of this contaminated equipment.

This is particularly concerning when one consults the April 15, 2014, report from the Ingham County Health Department regarding what they found when they were called to the plant in March 2014. While most of the mercury vapor readings taken at the plant that day were within relatively low levels considered generally safe, the readings obtained from two vacuums and a hose tested were significantly higher.

First some perspective: A fact sheet from the Michigan Department of Community Health notes that the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) recommends that in homes mercury vapor not exceed 1,000 nanograms per cubic meter of air (ng/m3).

When the Health Department tested various areas at the plant in March 2014, the air near the shop door came in with a “safe” reading of 582 nanograms per cubic meter of air (ng/m3). The air in the locker room came in at 113 ng/m3. The air near the shop office read 462 ng/m3.

But when the inspectors bagged each of two shop vacuums that were said to have been used in the botched November cleanup, they found that the air in the bag with “Dewalt Vac #1” measured 22,000 ng/m3. That’s 22 times the mercury vapor level considered “safe” for a home. The air in the bag with “Dewalt Vac #2” came in at 11,000. And the air around an item marked “hose” registered at 4,500 ng/m3.

Based on these readings, this equipment was obviously still actively contaminated with mercury four months after the spill. Keep in mind that shop vacs typically heat up when used—i.e., if there is liquid mercury in them, some of it is likely to convert to mercury vapor.

And was there a third vacuum that the Health Department didn’t even identify in March? If not, why did plant superintendent Garnham tell the hazardous waste disposal contractor EQ that three vacuums contaminated with mercury needed to be disposed of when she was looking for disposal bids?

When the City finally notified the public about what happened at Hannah about two weeks after Stokes was told by his employees about the issue, the City would insist on saying that only a potentially contaminated hose (and not a vacuum) had been used at Hannah. For example, in response to questions from me, on October 27, 2014, City Manager Lahanas wrote, “Also to clarify, the shop vac was not used in Hannah. Only the hose from the shop vac was used.”

But how Lahanas could be so sure it was just a contaminated hose (and not a vacuum, too) is unclear from the communications I have obtained, where, for example, Neumann is found telling the Health Department “a shop vacuum that had been used to clean up a mercury spill . . . was later used to blow out heating coils at the Hannah Community Center.”

Indeed, what Neumann said next to the Health Department again shows the persistent fundamental misunderstanding with regard to the March 2014 “clean up” at the plant: “As you may recall, this shop vacuum was identified and properly disposed of upon our knowledge of the incident in March 2014, with the County’s assistance.”

But the County Health had not taken the vacuums then. It would be about another month after the Health Department’s visit before the vacuum would be properly quarantined and marked according to DEQ’s rules about hazardous waste. And it would be another three months before the (two or three?) vacuums were hauled off as hazardous waste.

So what happened at Hannah? And more importantly, what happened with those two or possibly three contaminated vacuums and their hoses elsewhere in the City between November 2013 and March 2014?

I think it is safe to say no one really knows. I have repeatedly asked City Manager George Lahanas about where equipment was between November 2013 and March 2014, and gotten no answer.

Nevertheless, as the next installment of this series will show, as the spread of the spill to Hannah began to go public, City leaders would significantly overestimate their surety about what contaminated equipment had been where, and understate ongoing problems with the handling of the spill.


Go to the next article in the series: The Mercurial Trail, Part 7: Squelching Rumors. © 2013-2020 East Lansing Info