Mercury Contamination Investigation at Hannah Community Center Leads to Selective Notification of Citizens

Friday, October 24, 2014, 5:33 pm
By: 
Alice Dreger

The City is selectively notifying some East Lansing residents of an investigation at Hannah Community Center related to a mishap involving a mercury spill. An email message has gone out from the City addressed to “East Lansing Hannah Community Center Visitors.” The letter advises recipients that a vacuum hose that had previously been wrongly used to clean up a mercury spill at the water treatment plant was then also wrongly used at Hannah Community Center.

It remains unclear whether the contaminated equipment was used elsewhere around the city as well. (ELi has asked the City Manager but has not yet received a response to that question.) Two weeks ago--seven months after the vacuum hose was wrongly used at Hannah--a City employee called the Ingham County Health Department and in response the Health Department did an on-site investigation of Hannah.

The Health Department report on the Hannah investigation indicates that the agency “did not find any mercury vapors above the recommended commercial elemental mercury vapor criteria.” Mercury is a dangerous substance which, when spilled even in small quantities, requires special environmental attention.

The email that has gone out from Tim McCaffrey, Director of Parks and Recreation, is addressed to “Hannah Community Center Visitors,” but this reporter has not received the letter in spite of having an active gym membership account at Hannah. It is unclear how the City is deciding who to notify of what happened.

ELi is looking into this story and for now can provide the following timeline:

November, 2013: Workers at the East Lansing Waste Water Treatment Plant accidentally spill mercury from a “device used to track pressure inside the plant” (read more). A vacuum is wrongly used to vacuum up the spill. Workers do not notify the proper authorities of a mercury spill or of the improper clean-up.

March, 2014: East Lansing workers use the same vacuum hose to clean out heating coils at the Hannah Community Center.

March, 2014: City officials finally find out about the spill at the Water Treatment Plant, about four months after it occurs, and call the Ingham County Health Department in to investigate the spill. It is unclear whether they understand that a vacuum was improperly used to clean up the spill.

October 10, 2014: Shelli Neumann, City of East Lansing’s Human Resource Director, calls the County Health Department “concerned that a vacuum hose used to clean out heating coils at the Hannah Community Center which might have been contaminated with elemental mercury from [the] previous spill.”

October 10-13, 2014: Hannah Community Center apparently remains open for normal business, with no notification to the public.

October 13, 2014: Representatives of the Ingham County Health Department meet in the afternoon with East Lansing City staff to inspect the Hannah Community Center for signs of mercury contamination. The public is not notified of the investigation.

October 14, 2014: Ingham County Health Department reports no findings of concern.

October 23, 2014: With a cover note from DPW Director Tim McCaffrey, City Manager George Lahanas sends out, via a select email list (the nature of which remains unclear), a letter reassuring residents and employees that there is nothing to fear. Lahanas's letter is dated October 21.

ELi will be looking deeper into this story. We have already sent a list of questions to the City Manager, but have not yet received a response.

Photo courtesy of City of East Lansing.

UPDATE, October 27: City Manager George Lahanas wrote to clarify that it was a previously contaminated vacuum hose, rather than a vacuum, that was wrongly used at Hannah. The article above was corrected to reflect that distinction. Lahanas has not yet answered the rest of our questions, including new questions about what hapened to the contaminated vacuum itself.

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