Mercury Was Probably Landfilled Following East Lansing Spill

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Monday, August 1, 2016, 9:00 am
Alice Dreger and Ann Nichols


Mishandling of a mercury spill at East Lansing’s wastewater treatment plant probably led to some of the mercury ending up in a Lansing landfill according to new information ELi has assembled.

As we reported last week (7/27/16), the discovery process is now proceeding in a lawsuit brought by nine plant employees against the City for possible mercury and asbestos exposure. That process has turned up new information about the mercury spill, which occurred in November 2013 and involved between 1 and 1.5 pounds of elemental mercury. The newly available material includes the photo above, which the plaintiffs’ attorney believes shows the dumpster and other containers improperly used to store mercury-contaminated items at the plant following the spill.

From documents uncovered in the lawsuit, it also now appears that the device from which the mercury spilled—a pressure-sensing device called a manometer—was not accidentally broken but had its contents spilled when Maintenance Supervisor Wayne Beede was trying to unclog it.

Beede did not follow regulations in reporting the spill, and instead, with other workers, attempted to use ordinary shop vacs and duct tape to collect the mercury. Some of the mercury was washed down sink and floor drains in the shop. The leaking manometer was left in a tub outside the building, where it may have leaked additional mercury into the soil and down to the nearby Red Cedar River.

None of the workers involved in the cleanup used appropriate personal protection, and it was a full four months before the matter was brought to the attention of the proper authorities, starting with the Ingham County Health Department.

In an investigative series we published last year, we showed that by the time the spill was reported to health and environmental authorities, mercury had apparently been spread to the table on which Beede was working, the tub into which the device was placed, two or three shop vacs and their attachments, one or more dumpsters, the sink and its plumbing including the sink’s trap, the floor drain, the shop floor, possibly some “canisters,” and onto the seat of a City truck which was used to drive one or more of the contaminated shop vacs around the City. (One of the vac’s hoses was used to “blow out” heating vents at the Hannah Community Center before the spill was reported.)

We also showed that scheduled readings taken at the plant suggest at least some of the mercury ended up in the wastewater collected by the plant, probably when it was washed down the drains. The monthly reading taken in the cycle after the spill showed a sudden spike in mercury in the raw influent—the wastewater collected at the plant—and it seems possible, even likely, this spike came from the spill at the plant itself.

The plant’s next reading of the effluent—the water being dumped into the Red Cedar River—showed a relatively typical level of mercury, suggesting the Red Cedar River was not contaminated through the treated water.

We assumed last year that this meant the mercury had been pulled out of the effluent and managed appropriately. Looking further into the matter recently, however, we have learned from the new plant Superintendent, Paul Stokes, that “municipal treatment plants are not designed to remove mercury or other metals.” In other words, the mercury wasn’t pulled out of the water in a way that involved intentional management of mercury.

In response to questions from ELi, Stokes explained via email, “Much of what enters the plant will settle out with the sludge in the primary settling tanks and ultimately end up in the landfill with the dewatered sludge.”

As a follow-up to this, we asked Department of Public Works Director Scott House whether that meant the mercury pulled out in the sludge after the spill would have ended up in a landfill. House replied that the dewatered sludge goes to the Granger landfill on Wood Road, in Lansing.

We also asked House whether anyone notified Granger afterwards that there had been a spill which probably led to a greater than normal amount of mercury ending up in the landfill. House answered that “Granger was contacted following the spill and the discussions revolved around the cross-contaminated materials, not the sludge. The reason for this is that there was a trap on the sink that should have caught the mercury, keeping it out of the treatment process. However, there is the potential that some mercury made it [past] the trap into the treatment process.”

As noted above, there is indeed evidence to suggest some mercury did make it past the trap of the drain. Additionally, no one appears to have measured how much mercury ended up in each of the locations to which it spread, including the trap, so it is impossible to know how much mercury was spilled or where it all went.

As we reported last year, “while much attention was paid to the [contaminated] sink” in the period after the spill came to light, “remarkably little seems to have been paid to its trap.” One source at the plant told an ELi source that when the sink was pulled, there was a notable amount of mercury in the trap, suggesting the trap kept some of the mercury out of the wastewater, and ultimately out of the landfill.

Mercury is a significant concern for environmental agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, because of its potential to harm humans and other animals when it is released into the environment.

House and Stokes replaced the administrators who held their positions during the spill and eventual investigations of the spill. Beede, the maintenance supervisor apparently responsible for the spill, left the City in 2014 under a separation agreement that paid him over $26,000. Beede has also been implicated in the asbestos risk allegations made in the ongoing lawsuit.

This week we will be bringing you additional news about revelations from the lawsuit discovery process and our associated investigations.


You may also be interested in:

The Mercurial Trail: ELi’s investigative series into the 2013 mercury spill at the plant

City Manager Defends Handling of Mercury and Asbestos Problems

Lawsuit Contends Workers Unjustly Exposed to Asbestos

Ask ELi: Can Mercury Hurt?

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