HILL AIR FORCE BASE -- Base officials are defending the response after mercury was discovered hidden in unmarked plastic bottles on the base last fall.
Robert Elliott, chief of the base's environmental management division, said the base went above and beyond ordinary requirements to clean up the mercury.
But the base could face millions in fines after a whistleblower last fall told regulators that base officials failed to report a 2007 mercury spill and instead ordered untrained workers to remove the hazardous material with vacuum cleaners. The mercury had leaked from discarded boiler parts.
Elliott told The Salt Lake Tribune (http://bit.ly/H5oTD8) that he responded Thursday by letter to a notice of violation sent by the Utah Division of Solid and Hazardous Waste.
"Our response not only addresses the violations (alleged by regulators), but also seeks to ensure that alleged violations such as this do not occur in the future," he said.
Elliott, in his letter, said Hill's environmental team scoured suspect areas for traces of mercury. The cleanup was finished in January, a few months after a former base employee reported the hidden mercury to federal investigators.
A search turned up three bottles of the liquid metal, weighing about 90 pounds. An investigation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency continues.
Elliott notes his team was unaware of the existence of the bottles, and that their presence appears to stem from the "direct actions by an isolated individual or individuals."
"The underlying root causes of the violations are still being identified and will be addressed more fully when EPA's criminal investigation is completed," Elliott wrote. "In the interim, Hill AFB has and will continue to take appropriate action to ensure that the specific violations alleged ... remain corrected and to do its best to ensure that similar violations do not occur in the future."
State regulator Don Verbica said his agency has yet to determine whether Hill will be fined.
"We'll evaluate (Hill's response) and look at possible penalties," he told The Tribune.
The maximum fine for the violations is $13,000 a day, meaning the potential penalty for four years of violations could total more than $18 million.
Repeated exposure to low levels of mercury can cause muscle tremors and personality changes, according to the EPA. Mercury can also damage the central nervous system, kidneys and brain.