Citizen's tip leads to removal of 64 pounds of mercury

mercury-craigslist-700If someone set out to find a major toxic hazard like mercury, they probably wouldn't think to look on Craigslist. But that's just where a concerned citizen's tip led the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. 

As a result of the tip, MPCA staff were able to capture 64 pounds of mercury, preventing it from falling into the wrong hands or harming the environment.

The citizen contacted staff at the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District (WLSSD), who alerted the MPCA that a Floodwood, Minnesota, resident had posted an online ad to sell 64 pounds of elemental mercury for $650. The seller had found the mercury after going through his late grandfather's garage.

The MPCA decided that it made more sense to buy the mercury and contain it quickly for proper disposal, rather than start a time-consuming regulatory compliance investigation.

After communications with WLSSD and the Internet seller, the MPCA negotiated a lower price and directed WLSSD to use grant funds to make the purchase within hours of the discovery. WLSSD staff picked up the mercury at the seller's home and examined the entire area for mercury contamination. WLSSD staff found no mercury contamination and immediately brought it to a household hazardous waste collection area for proper disposal.

The seller had inherited the mercury, along with some unused mining equipment, from his grandfather, who had planned to get into gold mining. The mercury was in four sealed plastic bottles and in its original packaging. Although mercury is not illegal to own in Minnesota, state laws do regulate its sale and purchase. Since the person trying to sell the mercury did not do anything illegal in this case, he will not face any penalties.

"The average person may not see how capturing 60 plus pounds of mercury is such a big deal," Jeff Connell of the MPCA said. "What you have to realize is that millions of dollars are spent by coal-burning electric utilities to keep even a fraction of that amount from coming out of their smoke stacks. And if even a few ounces of mercury gets spilled, it can set off a major hazardous materials response, which has happened several times in the last decade. The cleanup and response to an incident that released about 12 pounds of mercury in Rosemount several years ago cost nearly $400,000. Being able to take 64 pounds of mercury out of circulation off a simple Internet ad is a phenomenal and fortunate coup."

"This is a great example of how one concerned citizen working hand-in-hand with local and state government can help protect our environment," Connell said. "Anyone who has questions about a chemical or something that doesn't seem quite right should contact their county environmental department or the MPCA to make sure the materials are handled correctly. In this case, the system worked beautifully."

Health concern

Exposure to elemental mercury can damage human health because it is toxic to the kidneys and the nervous system. The most dangerous routes of exposure include long-term exposure to small amounts of spilled mercury, intentional exposure, and occupational exposure. In the environment, elemental mercury can be converted into methylmercury, which then accumulates in the tissues of fish. Minnesota, with its many lakes, is especially aware of this because one of the most common ways people are exposed is by eating fish contaminated with mercury that was deposited in our lakes and streams. The Minnesota Department of Health recommends eating fish as a healthy source of nutrition, but advises choosing smaller fish to minimize exposure to mercury and other toxins.

Mercury is a naturally occurring element, but people release more mercury to the environment than what is released through natural processes. In Minnesota, mercury is released to the environment from coal-burning power plants, taconite processing, and other sources. Mercury use is legal in certain industrial processes, but its handling is highly regulated and monitored.

Minnesota is a leader in mercury reduction efforts. The MPCA continues to implement multiple mercury reduction strategies through permitting and prevention efforts. Duluth was the first city in the nation to ban mercury thermometers.