Plant Superintendent Was Allegedly Told of Mercury Spill

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Tuesday, August 2, 2016, 8:18 am
Alice Dreger and Ann Nichols


Above: East Lansing’s wastewater treatment plant along the Red Cedar River

When did the Superintendent of East Lansing’s wastewater treatment plant find out that somewhere between a pound and a pound-and-a-half of elemental mercury had been spilled at the plant? Was it within days of when it happened, in November of 2013, or four months later, in March of 2014?

When the spill and the spread of the mercury finally came to light in March 2014, the plant’s Superintendent at the time, Catherine Garnham, at first told her superiors this was the first she knew of it. But documents and testimony coming to light via a lawsuit surrounding the spill suggest that Garnham was told of the spill by plant workers shortly after it happened, and that she did not choose to investigate to find out if rumors of a spill were true.

Notes taken by staff in the City of East Lansing’s Human Resources department include an interview in March 2014 with Troy Williams, a maintenance specialist at the plant and now the lead plaintiff in the case against the City. In those notes, Williams says he witnessed the spill by Wayne Beede, maintenance supervisor. Williams says he “saw mercury on the floor and table. Wayne [Beede] was attempting to clean up the mercury.”

According to the notes, Williams said he called his co-worker, Scott Houser, “and they decided that Houser would call [Superintendent Catherine] Garnham at home to advise her of the mercury spill and how it had been cleaned up by Beede.” (Note: Scott Houser is not the same person as the current Director of Public Works, Scott House.)

The City’s Human Resources staff decided back then to ask Garnham, who was Superintendent from 2012-2014, for her phone records. Garnham’s cell phone records showed a sixteen-minute call from Scott Houser when he said he had called her. But Garnham said she could not recall the conversation, a claim she reiterated in her recent deposition related to the ongoing lawsuit.

In his interview with Human Resources, Troy Williams also said “he spoke directly with Garnham about the mercury spill several weeks after” it occurred, “when it had not yet been cleaned up properly. He stated that Garnham indicated that she was dealing with it. Williams stated that Garnham was angry with Beede about the situation, and that she made the statement that she hoped the next month’s mercury testing [on the City’s wastewater] was not high.” (Read our report on evidence that some of the mercury did get into the wastewater and probably ended up in a landfill.)

When he was interviewed by Human Resources, Scott Houser confirmed he had called Superintendent Garnham at home to tell her what had happened. He said that, on the Monday following the Friday spill, Garnham came into the shop where the spill had happened, “looked around the shop…and then had a conversation with Beede,” the worker who had caused the spill. Houser didn’t hear the conversation.

When Human Resources interviewed Garnham herself, she said she remembered hearing something “from a second-hand source” but, she said, when she asked Beede “if there was mercury in the manometer,” the device from which employees said the mercury had spilled, he responded “no.” According to the Human Resources report, “She said, ‘OK’ and walked out of his office, assuming that it was a non-issue.” Garnham added that she realized now “he was obviously lying to her.”

Garnham further told Human Resources in 2014 that she was “frustrated that employees did not come to her with their concerns about the mercury. She is astounded that spilled mercury has existed in the plant, as recently as this week, and no one showed it to her.”

Yet in her recent deposition for the ongoing lawsuit, Garnham acknowledged that on the Monday after the spill, she had “spoke[n] with someone about that.” She recalled that someone being plant worker Jose Mireles, and said Mireles “said to me something to the effect that one of the guys in the shop…had told him that Wayne Beede dumped mercury down the sink in the maintenance shop.”

But, Garnham told the plaintiffs’ attorney Neal Wilensky in response to his questions, she did not look in the sink or on the floor to see if there were mercury beads. According to her testimony, “The only thing I did on that date was I went out to the maintenance area, Mr. Beede was in his office, I went into the office and I asked him a couple questions about the manometer [the device from which mercury was spilled], whether it had contained mercury and then whether we had any mercury containing manometers….He said no that it did not contain mercury, and no, we don’t have any that contain mercury.”

Wilensky asked her, “You didn’t ask him about whether any mercury was spilled down the drain?” Garnham replied, “I did not….I did not want to accuse him of something until I felt that I had any evidence.” Asked if she inspected the shop room for mercury, she answered, “I did not.”

When Beede was interviewed by East Lansing’s Human Resources staff, he admitted that “a very small amount” of mercury had spilled, and that he had used a shop vac and a rag to clean it up. He also told Human Resources that he had told Garnham on that Monday “that there had been a small mercury spill” and that “Her response was, ‘OK,’ and she moved on….Beede stated that he has not heard one word about mercury since that conversation with Garnham.”

Beede told Human Resources he could not recall ever being trained about what to do if mercury spilled at the plant. Garnham acknowledged to Human Resources that Beede was supposed to have been trained in the proper procedures. He was supposed to know—as was she—that if there was a mercury spill, they were to keep people away from the area and contact the Ingham County Health Department.

In her recent deposition in the lawsuit, Garnham was asked about her educational background, and indicated her college degree is a Bachelor of Arts in English from Oakland University. She had apparently risen up through the ranks of the plant in part because, in her words, she “could actually write comprehensible reports.”

In her deposition, Garnham was unable to specify exactly what safety training she had completed, although she said she “did receive on-the-job training from my supervisor, and I did attend some courses sponsored by the Department of Environmental Quality.” She said she was “never trained” on her duty to contact health and environment agencies in the event of a mercury spill.

But Garnham confirmed in her testimony that she knew “The State is concerned about mercury in the environment” and that mercury is “a pollutant that is of concern in the environment in regard to fish and aquatic life” as well as human life.” Asked by Wilensky, “You knew at the time that mercury was a dangerous chemical, did you not?” Garnham answered, “Yes, I did.”

At the plant, as Superintendent, Garnham was responsible for regular reports to various agencies regarding the level of mercury in the wastewater and post-treated water at the plant. She admitted in her deposition that a requirement of the permit to run the plant—a permit process for which she was largely responsible—was to report spills.

In her testimony, pressed by Wilensky about why the spill went unreported so long, Garnham said that “If I would have had factual knowledge” of a mercury spill, “I would have reported it to the health department.”

Garnham told Wilensky in her testimony, that she “was put on administrative leave by the City” as it looked into the mercury spill, once it came to light in March of 2014. She said in her deposition that she was “never disciplined in any fashion for [her] role in this mercury spill.” According to Linked-In, Garnham is now a Regional Manager at F&V Operations, a company that contracts with municipalities for water treatment in Michigan and Indiana. © 2013-2020 East Lansing Info