- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 14, 2012

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - A whistleblower claims that officials at Utah’s Hill Air Force Base failed to report a massive mercury spill in 2007 and instead ordered untrained workers to remove the hazardous material with vacuum cleaners. The base could now face millions of dollars in fines.

“The issue is that they didn’t report the spill, and they stored the mercury without a permit,” Anderson said. “In this case, the stuff was stored in containers and wasn’t posing a threat to employees. But it was improperly stored.”

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.

Base officials have until April 2 to respond to a notice of violation sent by the Utah Division of Solid and Hazardous Waste, agency director Scott Anderson said Wednesday.

A spokesman for the base did not return a phone call from The Associated Press. The Salt Lake Tribune was first to report the incident Wednesday and said that base spokesman Richard Essary declined comment until he gathered more details.

The violations were brought to light by a former employee who became concerned about the potential environmental threats of the mercury, said Scot Boyd, an attorney with the Salt Lake city-based law firm of Christensen & Jensen who is representing the whistleblower.

The person claims the base failed to report 60 pounds of mercury that leaked in 2007, and that untrained workers using everyday vacuums cleaned up the material. It was then stored in plastic containers around the base for years.

Repeated exposure to low levels of mercury can cause muscle tremors and personality changes, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Mercury can also damage the central nervous system, kidneys and brain.

“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 whistleblower, the mercury could have continued seeping into the ground, potentially poisoning the water supply.”

According to the worker, the mercury was in about a dozen parts removed from boilers that were placed on pallets and began leaking. When the spill was discovered, workers removed some of the mercury with Shop-Vacs and stored it in containers scattered around the base, including at least one that was buried, Boyd said.

Boyd said the worker was among those who cleaned up the mercury, but he has not suffered any health problems. He asked to remain anonymous because he has family members and friends still employed at the base.


Josh Loftin can be reached at https://www.twitter.com/joshloftin.

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