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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, January 1, 2009

Bethlehem wrong to hide mercury spills

Illustration by Forest Byrd

Town government should look out for its citizens and workers — protecting them from harm and ensuring their safety. Just the opposite happened this past year in the town of Bethlehem.

Last January, a meter at Bethlehem’s water treatment plant in New Scotland broke, spilling mercury. The town did not, as it should have, immediately contact the state’s departments of health or environmental conservation to be sure the spill was cleaned up promptly and properly.

Instead, one of the workers, Gary Fish, told us, workers started researching the effects of mercury and became worried about their health, as well they should be. Mercury, once spilled, breaks into droplets that vaporize at room temperature into a colorless, odorless gas that is easily inhaled. Inhaling the vapors can cause personality changes, vision problems, deafness, memory loss, and numbness.

The workers got no response from town board members whom they e-mailed, Fish said, so one of them contacted the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. A month after the spill, the DEC required a thorough cleanup. Workers’ health was endangered due to that lapse and public health was, too.

A year after the spill, many questions remain unanswered. Reporter Philippa Stasiuk has assiduously researched records and talked to those involved for our front-page story this week, which tells a tale of neglect and incompetence at best and outright deception at worst.

Bethlehem’s public works commissioner, Josh Cansler, told the Bethlehem Town Board on Feb. 27 that the chief water plant operator, Rich Sayward, did not alert anyone because the spill did not exceed the DEC minimum for a reportable leak. None of the levels exceeded federal or state standards, he said. Cansler also told the board that the mercury was cleaned up with a ball syringe by a worker wearing all the required protective gear. He called the spill minor.

Gary Fish, who at the time of the spill worked as a security guard at the plant, says he was fired in August because he told the town attorney more than a pound of mercury spilled on the plant floor and wasn’t cleaned up properly. Fish says it was cleaned up using dustpans, and put in wide-mouth glass lab bottles labeled with hand-drawn skull and crossbones.

Town officials continue to deny Fish’s account and say he was let go due to scheduling conflicts. But DEC records show that a month after the spill was supposedly cleaned up by town workers, beads of mercury were still visible on the floor of the plant. Readings taken by the cleaners the town hired under order of the DEC , Precision Industrial Maintenance, also registered mercury on the workers’ boots — one workers’ boots had a reading five times the legal limit for mercury exposure; several were higher than the limit deemed safe by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. A Feb. 15 note from the hired cleaners says Sayward instructed them “not to test the old boots from here on out. Just throw out. All employees will be getting new boots.”

The reading on the boots show “there was a really significant mercury release to have that high a level that long after the event,” according to the director of the State University of New York Institute for Health and the Environment, David Carpenter.

PIM’s cleanup of the plant generated 1,000 pounds of contaminated waste, shipped to a hazardous waste storage site in New Jersey.

At least after the DEC intervention, the contaminated waste was disposed of properly. Plant workers told the DEC that mops and other supplies used to initially clean up the spill were thrown into a Dumpster taken away by the town’s waste hauler, who presumably didn’t know about the mercury contamination. So workers handling the trash would have also been exposed. And the place where the refuse ends up — no one knows exactly where — will be contaminated, too.

 The federal Environmental Protection Agency is so concerned about the dangers of mercury that it has issued elaborate instructions for cleaning up a broken compact fluorescent light bulb, which contain only about 4 milligrams of mercury, an amount that would cover the tip of a ballpoint pen. That amount, according to Stanford University research on mercury, is enough to contaminate up to six thousand gallons of water beyond levels that are safe to drink.

While the state’s Department of Health has run tests that show the treated water from the Bethlehem plant consumed by the public does not contain mercury, the plant was fined by the DEC for discharging mercury into the water treatment plant sump or drainage pit. The dried sludge 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 contains a much higher concentration of PCBs than is allowed in soils.

Plant workers told the DEC that the backwash sump, located near the valve that leaked last January, hadn’t been cleaned in 25 years. The mercury concentration was 613 milligrams per kilogram, or parts per million. Carpenter called this an “extraordinarily high level” and said that 2.9 parts per million is the level that is considered safe in sewage sludge. That means this sludge is 300 times over the safe limit.

Polychlorinated biphenyls, commonly known as PCBs, in the sump’s sediment registered at over 16 parts per million while the standard set by the EPA is 1 part per million. Anything that registers higher must be cleaned or covered up, said Carpenter, who described PCBs as a carcinogenic mixture, which, like mercury, reduces IQ and suppresses the immune system.

Spilled chemicals can enter the food chain and affect public health, according to Carpenter. Mercury is a dangerous metal, he said, because it moves around.

Although an independent contractor deemed the remaining meters at the Bethlehem water plant safe in March, the plant had two more mercury leaks last year — in April and again in May.

While the town did the right thing those times in notifying the DEC promptly of the spills, much remains to be answered for. The DEC has reduced the $77,500 for Bethlehem’s seven violations to $15,000 so the town can spend the money on solving its problems. But it will take more than money and replaced meters to solve Bethlehem’s problems. The public needs a full accounting of what went wrong to be confident something like it won’t happen again.

Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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