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Friday, March 21,2014

BREAKING: Officials responding to mercury spill

A November mercury spill at the East Lansing wastewater treatment plant went unreported for roughly four months. EL, county officials finishing clean up.

by Andy Balaskovitz
Katy Barth/City Pulse

Friday, March 21 — The Ingham County Health Department is in the process of clearing a mercury spill at the East Lansing wastewater treatment plant that occurred in November and should have been reported to authorities.


The mercury spilled from a pressure-sensing device on site and was contained within a maintenance area of the plant at 1700 Trowbridge Road, said Todd Sneathen, East Lansing’s director of public works.


Wastewater-treatment workers attempted to clean the site on their own, though it should have gone reported to the state Department of Environmental Quality, state and county officials said today.


As of Thursday, there were still detectable levels of the substance at the facility, though it was below residential guidelines for exposure, said Christine Hendrickson, health educator in emergency preparedness at the Ingham County Health Department. The Health Department cleared mercury Thursday that was still visible, she said. It advised heating and venting the area over the weekend.


Still, authorities and even Sneathen had no idea about the incident until Thursday, some four months after it occurred. Hendrickson said it should have been reported to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality when it happened.


“We’re in the process of trying to evaluate why it did not get reported in a timely fashion,” Sneathen said.


DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel said the state is aware of an incident, but he could not provide specifics.


“The agency is involved at several levels,” he said. “Anytime there’s a mercury spill with a potential threat to public health and the environment, we’re supposed to be notified. … Any facility, even with a small amount, needs to report that so we can make sure it’s cleaned properly.


Wurfel said it’s “too soon to tell” whether the city will face any violations. The DEQ needs to determine the extent of damage, if there is any, to the area, he said.


Mercury is a heavy metal element that occurs in several forms, including liquid, organic and inorganic, all of which can be toxic at high doses. It is a volatile substance with a high likeliness to vaporize, and can be absorbed through skin as well as the respiratory tract. Mercury poisoning can cause damage to the brain, kidney and lungs.


Symptoms of poisoning include vision, hearing and speech impairment, as well as a lack of coordination and sensations. Symptoms vary depending on the dose, method and length of exposure.


Exposure can occur in many ways, including breathing contaminated air or being in the vicinity of a spill of an improperly disposed instrument containing the element. However, the most common way humans are affected is by the consumption of animals and plants that contain mercury.


The spill came from mercury within a manometer, an instrument that measures air pressure and flow involved with treating wastewater. Sneathen was uncertain today on the exact amount spilled, but he estimated it was three to four thermometers’ worth. “It’s not a very big amount,” he said.


Still, the city is taking it seriously.


“From my perspective, any type of issue like this is serious because it needs to be cleaned up properly. It’s unfortunate it happened,” Sneathen said. “It’s unfortunate we weren’t made aware of it till so late in the process.”


Workers attempted to vacuum the mercury up when it happened, he said. There is no indication that any workers were harmed by exposure and the plant has remained operational, he added. Employees are back in the area where it happened.


“It appears to be contained based on all of the readings that were done,” Sneathen said.


The Health Department plans to return to the site on Monday for a final evaluation and to take additional readings.


Alexandra Harakas contributed reporting to this story.

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