The three count indictment returned Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Providence centers on Southern Union's 2001 program to remove from customers’ homes gas regulators that contained mercury.
Southern Union contracted with an environmental services company to safely remove the mercury from the regulators, which had been used in homes built prior to the 1960s to control the flow of gas.
Southern Union employees brought the regulators to a facility at the end of Tidewater Street in Pawtucket on the edge of the Seekonk River. There the contractor removed the mercury from the regulators and shipped it to a facility for distillation.
The indictment alleges that the removal contract expired at the end of 2001 but that New England Gas technicians continued to remove the regulators containing mercury. The company allegedly stored the regulators in a vacant building at the Tidewater facility, some of them in plastic kiddie pools.
The indictment alleges that the company also stored liquid mercury in various containers in the building. That mercury, the indictment alleges, came from a variety of sources, including from the locker of a deceased company employee.
In 2002, 2003, and again in 2004, the indictment alleges, a local company official drafted requests for proposals for removal of the mercury that was collecting at the Tidewater facility. But the company allegedly never finalized the requests for proposals or put them out to bid.
By July 2004, according to the indictment, some 165 mercury-containing regulators were stored at the Tidewater facility, as were various other containers, such as glass jars and a plastic jug, containing a total of more than a gallon of mercury.
The indictment alleges that the Tidewater facility was in various states of disrepair and, over the years, showed evidence of break-ins by vandals and homeless people. At three company safety committee meetings in 2004, maintenance employees raised concerns about the facility’s safety, but Southern Union took no action, according to the indictment.
In September 2004, according to the indictment, three youths broke into the mercury storage building and took several containers of liquid mercury. They broke some of the containers, spilling mercury around the facility’s grounds. They took some of the mercury to a nearby apartment complex, where they spread it around the grounds. For about three weeks, according to the indictment, puddles of mercury remained on the ground at the Tidewater facility.
The indictment alleges that in October 2004, shortly after a company employee discovered the mercury spill, Southern Union arranged for an environmental services company to remove the mercury from Tidewater. But the company allegedly failed to notify the Pawtucket Fire Department and the state fire marshal about the spill, as required by federal law.
The indictment also charges Southern Union with two counts of storing hazardous waste without a permit and one count of failing to notify the appropriate local emergency officials of a hazardous waste spill.
The fine for storing the mercury, if calculated at the maximum penalty of $50,000 per day, could amount to $66,850,000. The maximum fine for failing to report a hazardous waste spill is $500,000.
The nervous system is very sensitive to all forms of mercury, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances. Methylmercury and metallic mercury vapors are more harmful than other forms, because more mercury in these forms reaches the brain. Exposure to high levels of metallic, inorganic, or organic mercury can permanently damage the brain, kidneys, and developing fetus.