State awaits Hill's response to report on mercury spill

Mar 22 2012 - 10:36pm

HILL AIR FORCE BASE -- Even though a mercury spill went unreported and was improperly cleaned up, with the remaining liquid stored improperly, the public was not in danger, officials say.

Scott Anderson, director of Utah's Division of Solid and Hazardous Waste, said that after his department conducted compliance inspections at Hill Air Force Base in September and October, it was clear the mercury posed no threat to those on base, nor to residents nearby.

"When the spill was discovered, it was cleaned up, which is a good thing," Anderson said.

The not-so-good thing, he said, was that the 2007 spill went unreported and the leftover liquid from the discarded boiler parts was stored at various locations throughout the base rather than in the permitted storage building.

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality has notified Hill of its findings and given the base until April 2 to respond.

Hill is facing $13,000 fines per day for the four years during which the mercury was dealt with improperly.

"We're just in a holding pattern," Anderson said. "We're just waiting for them to respond and a chance to evaluate their response."

Hill spokesman Rich Essary said base officials learned March 5 of the Notice of Violation of its hazardous waste permit in connection with the spill.

He said the base is addressing that violation with regulatory agencies.

Anderson said after Hill gives its response, the time will come to figure out what penalties will be enforced.

He said the base conducted an independent assessment of the area where the spill occurred, as well as inside and outside of the buildings where workers stored the mercury.

"They took samples and put together a report, and their conclusion was, there was some residual contamination outside the area but not at a level requiring further action nor that is a threat to anyone," Anderson said. "We have the report."

The investigation began after a former HAFB worker called a whistleblower hotline set up by a Salt Lake City attorney's office.

Scot Boyd, of Christensen & Jensen, said that during a 2007 retrofit, Hill workers removed more than a dozen mercury-containing ring balance meters from boilers.

Instead of properly disposing of the ring balance meters, untrained workers placed the meters on pallets outside, and the meters began leaking mercury onto the ground.

The whistleblower told Boyd that more than 60 pounds of mercury was spilled. Workers cleaned up the mercury instead of calling hazmat authorities, which would have been the proper cleanup protocol.

Anderson said his department is not dealing with the whistleblower because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is handling the criminal investigation in the matter.

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