Plant’s workers exposed to mercury, EPA says

Sunday, February 8, 2009

At a Mojave Desert chemical plant, a demolition crew toppled a 50-foot-high tank, accidentally spilling an estimated 90 to 100 pounds of highly toxic mercury and contaminating the workers’ clothing.

About two weeks later, a crew knocked down a second 50-foot-high tank, spilling another estimated 90 to 100 pounds of mercury at the same Searles Valley Minerals plant 170 miles northeast of Los Angeles.

Together, the two incidents produced the West’s biggest spill of mercury – a potent neurotoxin – in two decades, said Robert Wise, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on-scene coordinator. He said he has referred the matter to the U.S. Department of Justice for review.

Government documents suggest that Searles Valley Minerals failed to follow proper procedures for reporting the spills and also initially understated the amount of mercury that had been spilled.

According to an EPA report and interviews, the company’s failure to follow proper reporting procedures might have exacerbated health risks to six demolition workers who still had mercury on their clothes weeks after the first spill.

Exposure to mercury occurs from breathing contaminated air, and experts say that at high levels, mercury can damage the brain, kidneys and a developing fetus.

Searles Valley Minerals’ executive director, Arzell Hale, defended the company’s actions, saying the Sept. 24 spill was inadvertent and the Oct. 10 spill occurred because of a contractor’s mistake. He said he was unaware of any damage to workers’ health.

The spills occurred at the plant in the San Bernardino County town of Trona – where 2 million tons of chemicals are produced annually – when a contractor was tearing down an old portion of the plant that had been used to produce fertilizer.

Hale stressed that once the spills occurred, the company cooperated fully with the EPA investigation, and the EPA confirmed that.

The spills represent a new problem for Searles Valley Minerals, which was the subject of a Chronicle report in July detailing a campaign against the plant by a former employee who said the facility’s toxic chemicals had gravely harmed many workers’ health. The company denied the allegations, but several legislators responded to the series by calling for an investigation of the plant’s safety record.

6 reportedly exposed

Wise said six demolition workers at the site were exposed to contamination from the mercury spills. He added: “I have been involved in this response program for 21 years, and this is the biggest spill we ever responded to in the region,” which includes California, Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii and Guam.

Hale said that before the first spill, the company had “understood the mercury and other known hazardous substances were removed from the plant.”

Environmental groups and experts familiar with mercury’s toxicity were critical of the company’s handling of the spills and said new demolition laws are needed.

“This is really alarming – I am just shocked – especially because the hazards of mercury have been known for so long concerning its environmental contamination,” said Julia Quint, a retired toxicologist for the state Department of Public Health.

At this point, only one company hired in connection with the demolition is talking publicly. James Cannon of Bakersfield-based J and J Clean Up Service, a subcontractor on the job, said he provided four workers with cutting torches for the demolition. He said that before the first spill, his workers were told by supervisors at the site that the tank was safe for removal. Before the second tank was knocked over, supervisors assured his workers that it was “welded up tight and nothing would come out,” he said.

Cannon said his workers then made the cuts that made it possible for other workers to knock over the tanks. He added he did not know which company employed the supervisors who gave his employees their instructions. The prime contractor, Advanced Steel Recovery of Fontana (San Bernardino County) and another subcontractor, Western Scrap of Bakersfield, declined to comment.

On the day of the Sept. 24 spill, Searles Valley Minerals notified the state’s Office of Emergency Services about a spill of one pint of mercury – equal to 14 pounds. About three weeks later, the company amended its report to 90 pounds.

After the first spill, San Bernardino County hazardous material specialist Curtis Brundage said the company called to say “they had it under control, they had a cleanup contractor on site, and it was a small spill. Had the more accurate information been transmitted to us, we would have responded. We would have found out that workers had tracked mercury all over and employees had it on their clothes and tracked it back” to the apartments where they were staying.

After the first spill, Hale said an approach was devised to avoid another problem, but a second spill occurred when the demolition contractor used inadequate equipment.

The company reported the Oct. 10 spill to the state as six pounds and about a week later amended that amount to 90 pounds. The company did not, however, immediately notify the National Response Center, the Coast Guard-run headquarters for such reports, about either spill.

The law requires that when a mercury spill exceeds one pound in a 24-hour period, the center must be notified immediately. Instead, Wise said the company filed the reports on Oct. 21 after he told them to do so.

Under laws effective last year, any company failing to notify the center promptly about a reportable spill could face a fine of up to $32,500 a day, EPA officials said.

Too big to handle

On Oct. 21, Wise arrived at the plant site after county regulators told him the spills were too big for them to handle.

“There is still visible mercury throughout the debris piles,” Wise wrote in his report. “In addition, underneath the concrete floor of the structure is a series of canals and raceways containing a large quantity of mercury.”

Wise said it was the demolition workers who faced contamination from the mercury – because they were there when the tanks toppled over and because they wore mercury-contaminated clothes for weeks after the first spill.

Once he learned about the workers’ clothing, Wise said he had Searles’ environmental contractor decontaminate the rented condos where the workers lived in Ridgecrest (Kern County), about 25 miles from the plant. He said the contractor also ripped carpet out of a worker’s two cars and took away two children’s car seats because of high mercury readings in those vehicles.

After the spills, Wise referred the case to federal prosecutors for review. He declined to comment on what possible violations the office might be investigating.

Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles, declined to comment on the case, saying his agency doesn’t discuss the status of investigations, “including whether we have opened one.”

At the plant site, Wise said 75 to 100 tons of steel from the debris site has been sent to a Nevada landfill, and about 2,000 tons of mercury-contaminated soil has been removed; in addition, 50 drums of high-level mercury waste were “shipped offsite for mercury recovery.”

Meanwhile, the companies involved in the demolition are arguing over how the spills happened, he said: “Everyone admits the first crystallizer (tank) was just an accident. The people involved in the demolition didn’t know mercury was in there. The issue is the second one where they knew mercury was in there, and it was still knocked over.”

Whatever is determined about how the mercury was spilled, experts say that it is a substance to be taken very seriously.

Mercury’s toxicity

Philip Landrigan, a mercury expert who is chairman of Mount Sinai School of Medicine’s Department of Community and Preventive Medicine in New York, said that given the size of the spills, “there is a high likelihood the demolition workers’ exposure exceeded federal mercury limits. For workers, the principal route of exposure is by inhalation, and once the mercury gets in the body, it travels around, and it is directly toxic to a number of organs. But you worry most about its toxicity to the brain, nervous system and kidneys.”

Bill Magavern, director of Sierra Club California, said the spills at Searles Valley Minerals indicate the need for new laws governing demolitions.

“We need to make sure buildings are clear of mercury and other hazardous materials prior to demolition,” Magavern said. He added that the law now requires a professional survey assuring asbestos has been removed from a site, but “there is no similar requirement to have a professional survey for mercury and other hazardous materials.”

E-mail Susan Sward at ssward@sfchronicle.com.

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