[Home Page] [This Week] [Classifieds] [Legals] [Obituaries] [Newsstands] [Subscriptions] [Advertising] [Deadlines] [About Us] [FAQ] [Archives] [Community Links] [Contact Us]

Regional Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, January 1, 2009

Questions remain after mercury spills at water plant

By Philippa Stasiuk

The town of Bethlehem is cooperating with the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation to update its water treatment plant and its policies after a mercury spill led to the discovery of numerous safety and environmental violations at the plant.

When a flow meter containing mercury broke last January, workers at the Bethlehem Water Treatment Plant in New Scotland were exposed to mercury for four weeks before DEC involvement led to a thorough cleaning of the facility.

In February, Bethlehem was fined $77,500 as a penalty for seven violations; failure to clean up promptly was one of them, illegal disposal was another. But the DEC has since reduced that amount to $15,000 in exchange for remediation meant to address worker and plant safety. The town must replace all the flow meters containing mercury by June 2009.

The aging plant stands next to the Vly Creek Reservoir at the center of New Scotland; it is owned by the neighboring town of Bethlehem and supplies water largely to Bethlehem but also to some New Scotland residents on the water-line route.

Testing done by the state’s Department of Health has shown that the treated water consumed by the public does not contain mercury. However, the plant was fined by the DEC for discharging mercury into the water treatment plant sump or drainage pit. 

The sludge, once dried, is used to fortify the reservoir dam. Mercury concentration in the sump pit sludge was found to be many times higher than the amounts considered safe for sewage sludge, and the sump’s sediment also contained a much higher concentration of PCBs than is allowed in soils.

Mercury in the plant’s sludge can be hazardous because, according to David Carpenter, the director for the State University of New York’s Institute for Health and the Environment, “It bioconcentrates up through the food supply and once it’s in that food supply, there’s no way to get it out.”

Mercury bioconcentrates by binding to small organisms, such as algae, which are then eaten by larger organisms further up the food chain. “That’s why mercury is such a dangerous metal,” Carpenter said.  “It moves around. It doesn’t stay in place.”

Workers’ concerns drive cleanup

The DEC learned of the spill after being contacted by an unnamed employee working at the plant. According to Gary Fish, a former part-time security guard at the plant, the worker or workers went directly to the DEC after e-mailing town trustees with concerns about the spill and receiving no reply. Fish said that, after the spill, some plant employees had started researching the effects of mercury and were worried about their safety.

Fish was fired in August 2008. He said he was fired because he spoke to the Bethlehem town attorney, James Potter, about the mercury leaks and “told him that there was more than a pound of mercury spilled on the plant floor and that it wasn’t cleaned up properly.”

Fish said the mercury was cleaned up using dustpans, and put in wide-mouth glass lab bottles labeled with hand-drawn skull and crossbones. Josh Cansler, Bethlehem’s commissioner for Public Works, said in February that the person who cleaned up the spill used a ball syringe.

Potter confirmed last week that Fish spoke to him but said he never told town officials what Fish had told him because it was in line with what he and other village officials were hearing from the DEC. By February, the DEC had already begun its investigation.

The town reported that Fish was let go due to scheduling conflicts.

According to Fish, his employment record, which he requested after being fired, showed no documentation of scheduling conflicts in the 12 years in which he had worked at the water facility. Fish said that scheduling “had always been very flexible before the mercury incident.”

Although allegations about the spill by Fish continue to be denied by town officials, DEC records indicate that almost a month to the day after the spill was cleaned up by plant employees, beads of mercury were still visible on the floor of the plant. Readings taken by Precision Industrial Maintenance, the cleaning consultants hired by the town by order of the DEC, also registered mercury on employees’ shoes.

One employee, Kevin Holmes, who resigned from the plant on March 28, had a mercury reading of 0.254 parts per million on his boots, which is over five times the legal limit for mercury exposure. He could not be reached for comment.

In a side note to the mercury readout tables compiled by PIM, a note says on “February 15, 2008, Rich Sayward [the water treatment plant manager] instructed not to test the old boots from here on out. Just throw out. All employees will be getting new boots.”

The exposure levels on the boots “indicate that there was a really significant mercury release to have that high a level that long after the event,” said Carpenter.

PIM’s report also clashes with Cansler’s public statement at Bethlehem’s February town board meeting, which occurred 13 days after PIM tested for mercury on the employees’ boots. According to minutes of the Bethlehem meeting, Cansler said, “We did bring in a hazmat team at a later date (from the spill) to check the area and none of the levels were identified anywhere that exceeded the maximum standards required by OSHA or the NY State public employees safety and health.”

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration website specifies the permissible exposure limits of mercury vapors as .05 parts per million. Three out of 10 of the plant employees whose boots were tested had higher mercury readings than .05 parts per million. Cansler said he received PIM’s report “several days after they left.” At the town meeting, which occurred Feb. 27, he described the spill as “fairly minor” and said it was never a threat to the water supply or the public.

Cansler also said that a representative from the Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau came out to the plant several days after PIM gave its report on the plant. According to Cansler, “The guy from PESH [the state’s Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau] said the readings were no big deal. He came out and talked to them because some of them were worried that maybe they could have tracked the mercury. He explained to them that, unless you take your boot off and lick the floor, there’s no danger. We did get rid of all the boots just in case.”

In the month between the spill and the day the boots were taken away, the mercury may have spread into the employees’ homes. According to the DEC website, if mercury had spread onto a porous surface such as carpets, it would be “difficult to clean and remain a source of mercury vapors.” All area rugs were removed from the plant’s floors by PIM when it cleaned the plant in February.

Illegal disposal

The town was also cited for a violation pertaining to how the mercury spill was cleaned up. According to employees interviewed by the DEC during the initial investigation, the mops and other cleaning supplies used to wipe up the spilled mercury were thrown into the Dumpster outside the plant, which was later removed by the town’s waste hauler.  “Presumably,” the DEC order of consent reads, “the hauler didn’t know of the presence of mercury contaminated materials.”

Cansler has stated publicly on numerous occasions that the chief water plant operator didn’t alert anyone about the spill because it didn’t exceed the DEC minimum for a reportable leak, which is one pound of mercury. 

However, PIM’s cleanup of the plant generated 1,000 pounds of “contaminated waste,” which was later shipped by PIM to a hazardous waste storage site in New Jersey.

Cansler explained that the prodigious amount of waste included not only cleaning materials and the hazmat suits worn by the cleaners, but also all of the water and other liquids used to clean the plant.

According to manifests obtained by the Department of Environmental Conservation, PIM removed three clear glass bottles of mercury weighing a total of about 40 pounds five days before the DEC started investigating the plant. The DEC order of consent reads, “Although there was some water in these jars, the vast majority of the jars contained elemental mercury.” 

Answers to why the water facility possessed so much mercury on site differ between the town and the DEC. Plant employees told the DEC of another unreported mercury spill that took place in July 2006.

However, each flow meter at the plant contains five pounds of mercury, so, if all of the mercury from the two broken flow meters had been stored in the glass jars, the jars would have weighed 10 pounds.

The DEC notes refer to the “pervasive nature of mercury violations at the plant” and state that the 40 pounds came from previous unreported mercury releases at the plant.

In April, Industrial Instrumentation, a company specializing in process controls, was hired by the town to assess the plant’s remaining six mercury-containing flow meters. They identified six “out of service” meters and recommended that they be removed according to hazardous waste requirements.

When asked last week about the three jars of mercury, Cansler said, “There was never 40 pounds. I don’t know where that number came from. They put in a second set of flow meters in the 1970s. They left 20 pounds of mercury for replacement, which sat in a locker for thirty-something years. There were spills a couple of years ago. That put that next to those jars and the total including water came up to 21 pounds or something. I’m not sure where 40 pounds came from. It might have included the bottle.” 

An engineer at BIF, the Ohio-based company that manufactured the flow meters used at the Bethlehem water treatment plant, said, “It was not customary to leave extra mercury but we could have supplied them with mercury should they need it, if they asked for it. We wouldn’t be giving it to them. Someone would have requested it but it’s not usual to be in jars.  It would have been in a white plastic-like bottle.”

The BIF engineer described the white bottles as non-transparent with a screw-cap lid.

Unpermitted discharge

All water from the plant’s sumps is pumped into the backwash lagoon and from there into drying beds. After treating the material through a freeze-drying process, it is taken out and used to fortify the north-facing slope of the dam of the Vly Creek Reservoir.

In a letter between DEC Attorney Richard Ostrov to Bethlehem’s town attorney, Potter, Ostrov says that the sludge from the plant’s drying beds contains mercury that although at present is “below acceptable levels for spreading,” has a concentration of mercury “that has increased over the years.”

Upon initial interviews with the DEC, plant employees said that the backwash sump, which was located near the flow valve that spilled mercury on Jan. 14, had not been cleaned in 25 years.

PIM removed and subsequently tested the sludge in the sump pit on March 7. Malcolm Pirnie, the engineering consultants hired by the town, described what chemicals were found in the sludge in its own summary of the investigation. The concentration of mercury was 613 milligrams per kilogram (or parts per million). 

Carpenter, director for SUNY’s Institute for Health and the Environment, called this an “extraordinarily high level” and said that the level that is considered safe in sewage sludge is 2.9 parts per million, a fraction of the actual concentration of 613 mercury parts per million. 

With no explanation from plant employees as to why there was mercury in the sump pit, it is impossible to know if it was from one spill or many, especially if sediment had been accumulating in the pit for 25 years. Carpenter said that, if it were from one spill, it would “indicate a very significant mercury spill.”

There were also PCBs (PolyChlorinated Biphenyls) in the sump’s sediment, which registered at 16.1 parts per million.  According to Carpenter, the standard set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency EPA for PCB levels in soil is one part per million and anything that registers higher must be cleaned or covered up. Carpenter described PCBs as a carcinogenic mixture of 209 different substances, which, “like mercury, reduce IQ, and suppress the immune system.”

Remediation by the town

By order of the DEC, the town of Bethlehem is in the process of replacing all of the mercury-filled flow meters at the plant. The deadline for replacing them is June 2009, according to the DEC consent order. 

Although the remaining meters were deemed safe by an independent contractor in late March, there have been two more mercury leaks this year — one in April and another in May, both of which were reported by the town to the DEC. Cansler affirmed the DEC was “happy with how we handled it.”

The leak in May occurred in the new pump room, which, prior to the spill, had tested 208 parts per million in the water, slightly higher than the 200 parts per million recommended by the EPA. After the May spill, all water and debris was removed from the sump pit and scoured with a cleaning solution prior to being re-screened. 

Although the town was initially fined $77,500 as penalty for its violations, the DEC reduced the amount by $62,500 in exchange for remediation meant to address worker and plant safety. Rick Georgeson, spokesman at the DEC, said of the fine reduction, “Sometimes it doesn’t make a lot of sense to fine municipalities because they could be using the money to solve problems.”

The estimated cost of replacing all the flow meters is about $250,000, according to Cansler. Through Malcolm Pirnie, the town is also continuing to monitor the levels of mercury and PCBs in and around the water treatment plant and a final report will be given to the DEC sometime next year.

[Return to Home Page]