HILL AIR FORCE BASE -- More than 60 pounds of liquid mercury spilled at Hill Air Force Base in 2007 was improperly cleaned up and stored, and the spill was never reported, a former employee of the base is alleging.
The base has until April 2 to respond to the allegations of violations and could face fines of up to $13,000 per day for the four years during which the mercury was dealt with improperly. The fines could add up to millions of dollars.
The spill was reportedly 60 times the size of a spill that requires hazardous material authorities to be called in to help, but the former employee said untrained workers were told to clean the area with shop vacs and vacuum cleaners.
Attorney Scot Boyd, of the Salt Lake City-based firm Christensen & Jensen, represents the former HAFB employee. On Wednesday, he released a letter that was sent March 2 by the Department of Environmental Quality to Robert T. Elliot, chief of the base's environmental management division.
According to the letter, written by Scott Anderson, executive secretary of the Utah Solid and Hazardous Waste Control Board, the base failed to report and clean up spilled waste, stored mercury in unlabeled containers that were not in good condition, failed to inspect containers storing hazardous waste and stored mercury in buildings for longer than the 90 days allowed without a permit.
Anytime one pound or more of liquid mercury is released into the environment, the spill, under law, must be reported to the National Response Center.
"As soon as I knew the size of the spill and that liquid mercury was involved, I knew we had to jump on this," Boyd said. "If not for this whistle-blower, the mercury could have continued seeping into the ground, potentially poisoning the water supply."
Mercury can damage the central nervous system, kidneys, liver and brain, according to the DEQ and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The former employee, whose identity has not been disclosed, called the law firm's hotline after seeing an advertisement for whistle-blowers.
"I have friends and family that live near the base, and I was really concerned about groundwater contamination," the former employee said in a prepared statement released by Boyd.
Boyd said that the spill happened when HAFB workers removed more than a dozen mercury-containing ring balance meters from boilers. Instead of disposing of them properly, the meters were placed on pallets outside. The meters began leaking onto the bare ground, and more than 60 pounds of mercury were spilled.
"One of the major concerns is why the hazmat team at Hill was not contacted to do the cleanup," Boyd said.
Boyd said the mercury destroyed the shop vac used in the cleanup.
He also said workers were unable to recover all of the liquid mercury. They placed the mercury that was collected into plastic containers and put those containers in various locations throughout the base.
Boyd and his client cooperated in helping investigators recover the stored mercury.That investigation occurred Oct. 18, 2011.
"The EPA and DEQ reacted quickly to the complaint," Boyd said. "Within days of learning the information, the EPA was already on site, investigating."
Boyd said he and the former employee are concerned whether the investigators recovered all of the liquid mercury that workers had cleaned up.
Statement from HAFB
Hill Air Force Base spokesman Rich Essary provided the following email statement Wednesday evening:
"Base leadership was notified in October 2011 about an alleged spill of mercury in an industrial area on the east side of the base. Hill Air Force Base is cooperating with an ongoing investigation. Our first priority is to ensure the health and safety of our people and the community. When we learned of the allegations, we took immediate action. After the presence of mercury at the site was confirmed through sampling, the Air Force followed standard environmental regulations and developed a corrective action plan to remediate the mercury. This plan was reviewed and approved by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. The cleanup was started in early December and completed in January 2012. On March 5, the base was notified of a Notice of Violation of its hazardous waste permit in connection with the alleged spill. We are addressing that violation with regulatory agencies."