From: John Castellucci, The Providence Journal, R.I.
Published November 20, 2004 12:00 AM

Pawtucket, R.I., Mercury Spill Could Lead to Steep Fines

Nov. 20—PAWTUCKET, R.I. — Two months ago, vandals broke into a storage shed belonging to New England Gas Co., smashed one jar containing mercury and took another to their apartment complex, causing a spill that contaminated the complex and setting off a cleanup that's still under way.

Now, state and federal officials are investigating whether the gas company broke the law by storing mercury in the shed, just a few blocks from two schools, a nursing home, numerous houses and apartment buildings.

Southern Union, New England Gas' parent company, said in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that the gas company has received a subpoena for documents related to the spill.

The documents are expected to tell investigators whether the company violated "hazardous waste management provisions, spill and release notification procedures and hazard communication requirements."

New England Gas and Southern Union officials didn't return telephone calls yesterday and Thursday seeking comment on the Nov. 9 SEC filing.

Gail Mastrati, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Management, referred questions about the subpoena to Thomas Connell in the U.S. Attorney's Office, who declined to comment on the investigation or even confirm that one was under way.

But Environmental Protection Agency officials in Boston said New England Gas clearly broke the law by keeping large quantities of mercury in the storage shed on its Tidewater property, the former site of a coal gasification plant between the Seekonk River and Taft Street.

"Certainly we know that the material was there improperly and the EPA will certainly take enforcement action," said David McIntyre, chief of the EPA's New England regional office's emergency response and removal group.

"Certainly they had Superfund violations. They're not supposed to store hazardous materials beyond certain quantities," McIntyre said.

Kenneth Rota, chief of the hazardous waste compliance unit of the New England regional office, said the gas company could face fines of more than $30,000 a day for every day it can be shown that the mercury was being kept in the shed illegally.

Rota said that, under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the gas company was required to obtain a permit for the mercury storage.

Getting the permit would have entailed a public hearing. Pawtucket city officials said yesterday no public hearing was ever held.

John J. Barry III, the city councilor whose district includes the Tidewater site, said the gas company endangered firefighters and residents by failing to tell anybody that mercury was being stored on the property.

"As far as I'm concerned, their activity is criminal," said Barry. "There's no defense. They've used the city of Pawtucket as a dumping ground for hazardous waste."

Harvey E. Goulet, Mayor James E. Doyle's director of administration, said the gas company still doesn't appear to know how much mercury it had on the premises. "We still don't know how much was there that was stolen," he said.

The mercury came from natural gas regulators that had been taken out of service and were being cleaned for disposal, Christopher J. Medici, a spokesman for New England Gas, said at an Oct. 21 news conference.

The property was fenced in and the shed was locked, but no security guard was on duty when the break-in took place, and several weeks went by before it was discovered by the gas company and disclosed.

The vandals — two 17-year-old boys, an 18-year-old man and 20-year-old man — told the police they broke into the shed sometime in September, but didn't know the specific date, said Pawtucket police Maj. John J. Whiting.

The break-in and mercury spill were reported by the gas company on Oct. 19.

The storage shed was a block from Lawn Terrace apartments, the apartment complex on Pleasant Street where several of the vandals lived with their families, and where the stolen mercury was traced on Oct. 22.

The apartment complex is now the site of a major environmental cleanup being paid for by the gas company.

It is also paying the hotel bills of the 147 tenants evacuated from the apartment complex. In its SEC filing, Southern Union, a company with annual earnings of $114 million, said the mercury spill isn't expected to have "a material adverse effect" on its financial results.

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© 2004, The Providence Journal, R.I. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.

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