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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 4, 2009

Taking the temperature of safety at the Bethlehem water plant

In January, we called for a public accounting of what went wrong to allow repeated mercury spills at the Bethlehem water plant in New Scotland. None was forthcoming.

Last week, more mercury was found at the plant — pooled in the bottom of a manhole.

We commend the plant workers who immediately called our newspaper along with the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation and the Albany County Department of Health.

With the spill in January of 2008, the town did not, as it should have, immediately contact those agencies to be sure the spill was cleaned up properly and promptly.

Bethlehem’s public works commissioner, Josh Cansler, told the Bethlehem town board the spill did not exceed the DEC minimum for a reportable leak; none of the levels exceeded state standards, he said. Cansler called the spill minor and told the board that the mercury was cleaned up with a ball syringe by a worker wearing all the required protective gear.

But DEC records show that a month after the spill was supposedly cleaned up, beads of mercury were still visible on the floor of the plant. Readings on one worker’s boots were five times the legal limit for mercury exposure.

In short, we don’t trust Cansler. He isn’t asking the tough questions. He is at the top of the chain of command and should be responsible for finding out what goes on at the plant.

This week, he told our reporter Philippa Stasiuk, that, until proven otherwise, the mercury found in the manhole was being treated as a criminal investigation.

Rick Georgeson, spokesman for the DEC, had a more logical explanation than sabotage: The mercury may have been there a long time and could have come from one of the plant’s previous spills, which were caused by mercury leaks from aging water pressure gauges.

The manhole is connected to a sump pit inside the plant where a water meter had failed in 2008 and discharged mercury into a bucket; mercury readings in the room indicated there were previous spills before safety measures were in place.

While we’re relieved that tests by the DEC and the county’s health department have confirmed the plant’s drinking water was not affected by the mercury, the recent discovery and the superintendent’s reaction is a matter of concern.

Georgeson said that three to four teaspoons of mercury had been found. 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 contains 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.

Beyond that, the first Bethlehem spill eventually led to an investigation that showed that mercury concentration in a sump pit sludge was many times higher than the amounts considered safe for sewage sludge. The dried sludge is used to fortify the reservoir dam. The sludge was 300 times over the safe limit.

Mercury is a dangerous metal, David Carpenter, the director of the State University of New York Institute for Health and the Environment, told us, because it moves around. Spilled chemicals can enter the food chain and affect public health.

While town police, at Cansler’s behest, continue their criminal investigation, we suggest the town government insist on its own answers and share them with the citizens it is sworn to serve.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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