Texas Company Illegally Stored Liquid Mercury in Rhode Island

PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island, October 16, 2008 (ENS) - The Southern Union Company, headquartered in Texas, was convicted Wednesday by a federal jury in Providence for illegally storing liquid mercury at a site in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

The jury found Southern Union, owner of the New England Gas Company, guilty of one felony count of storing hazardous waste without a permit in violation of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

Mercury is considered a hazardous substance because at high levels of exposure, it can damage the brain, kidneys, and developing fetus, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances.

The evidence presented at the three week trial resulted from a joint investigation by criminal divisions of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

Government lawyers explained to the jury that Southern Union began a program in 2001 to remove gas regulators that contained mercury from customers' homes.

Residential gas regulators reduce the pressure of gas from main feeder lines to usable levels for household pipes. Gas regulators built before 1961 were commonly located within homes and incorporated a component that contained about two teaspoons of elemental mercury. Newer units do not contain mercury.

Southern Union employees brought the mercury-containing regulators to a facility in Pawtucket, on the edge of the Seekonk River.

Initially, Southern Union hired an environmental services company to remove the mercury from the regulators, and then shipped the mercury to a facility in Pennsylvania for further processing.

When the removal contract expired, gas company technicians continued to remove the regulators from customers' homes. The company stored the regulators, mercury and all, as well as loose liquid mercury, in various containers, including plastic kiddie pools, in a vacant building at the Pawtucket facility.

The evidence showed that, in 2002, 2003 and 2004, a local gas company official drafted requests for proposals for removal of the mercury that was collecting at the facility. But the company never finalized the RFPs or put them out to bid.

By July 2004, at least 165 regulators containing mercury were stored at the site, as were various other containers, such as glass jars and a plastic jug, containing a total of more than a gallon of mercury.

In September 2004, three youths broke into the mercury storage building at Pawtucket and took several containers of liquid mercury. They broke some of the containers, spilling mercury around the facility's grounds. They also took some of the mercury to a nearby apartment complex.

For about three weeks, puddles of mercury remained on the ground at the site, and more mercury lay spilled at the apartment complex.

On October 19, 2004, a gas company employee discovered mercury on the ground of the facility and evidence that there had been a break-in.

"Today a jury found that Southern Union knowingly stored liquid mercury without obtaining the proper permits in violation of federal law," said Ronald Tenpas, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division. "With this guilty verdict, the jury has reinforced the message that we as a society will hold accountable any company that fails to meet its responsibilities under the law."

Based in Houston, Southern Union owns and operates one of the nation's largest natural gas pipeline systems with more than 20,000 miles of gathering and transportation pipelines and North America's largest liquefied natural gas import terminal. The company now no longer serves Rhode Island, but does distribute natural gas to more than 500,000 customers in Missouri and Massachusetts.

A sentencing hearing has been set for February 20, 2009. Knowingly storing hazardous waste without a permit carries a maximum fine of $50,000 for each day of violation.

The human nervous system is very sensitive to all forms of mercury, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances. Exposure to high levels of metallic, inorganic, or organic mercury can permanently damage the brain, kidneys, and developing fetus. Effects on brain functioning may result in irritability, shyness, tremors, changes in vision or hearing, and memory problems.

Short-term exposure to high levels of metallic mercury vapors may cause effects including lung damage, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, increases in blood pressure or heart rate, skin rashes, and eye irritation.

{Photo: Old natural gas regulators contain about two teaspoons of liquid mercury. (Photo courtesy Environmental Health Perspectives)}

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