Crew removes soil tainted with mercury near Sykesville

June 26, 1993|By Katherine Richards | Katherine Richards,Staff Writer

A hazardous-materials crew wearing respirators and protective plastic suits began shoveling soil contaminated with mercury from a spot at the foot of Piney Run Dam, near Sykesville, yesterday.

Several pounds of mercury apparently spilled when a flow meter was vandalized several years ago.

County workers discovered June 16 that mercury had leaked from the meter's box into surrounding soil.

"We have a very high confidence" that the mercury is restricted to the area immediately surrounding the box, said James E. Slater, administrator of the Carroll County Office of Environmental Services.

The spill took place downstream from the dam, and Piney Run Lake was not affected, said Robert A. "Max" Bair, Carroll County director of administrative services.

Mercury is a toxic metal, much heavier than water, that can cause neurological damage.

The county received results Thursday of one test of Piney Run water and three tests of stream sediment.

"The water has come up clean," Mr. Slater said.

He said the stream provides drinking water for Springfield Hospital Center and is tested routinely for mercury, but none has been found.

But mercury was found in stream sediment about 20 feet from the meter box, Mr. Slater said.

He said the mercury in the sediment may be from some other source.

Or it may have splashed out of the meter box when the meter was vandalized and then been washed into the stream, where it sank to the bottom.

The contaminated sediment will be removed to a depth of 2 feet, along with the meter box and the contaminated soil for at least 18 inches outward from it.

The work is being done by Clean Harbors, a hazardous-materials cleanup firm from Massachusetts.

Mr. Slater estimated the cost of the cleanup at $12,000 to $30,000.

"The measures that are being taken are extremely conservative," he said. "You just want to be sure you're getting it all."

The work is expected to be completed by July 1.

Mr. Slater said the delay between the spill's discovery June 16 and the start of cleanup yesterday was caused by the wait for test results and for specialized cleanup equipment to be brought to the site.

No effect on plants or animals had been observed, he said.

Tests will be conducted on fish and microorganisms downstream from the spill to see if their tissues contain higher-than-normal amounts of mercury, Mr. Slater said.

The flow meter, called a manometer, was installed in 1975 to measure the water flow in the stream below the dam.

At least six or seven years ago, officials said, the meter was vandalized, and some mercury was spilled into the box containing the meter.

The meter was removed, and some mercury was cleaned up.

Asked why workers had not noticed then that some of the 13.25 pounds of mercury contained in the meter were missing, Mr. Slater said, "We're not sure that they looked" or even that they knew how much mercury had been present.

Some of the escaped mercury may have vaporized and dispersed long ago, he said.

More is known about the hazards of mercury now than in the past, he said.

"We know we need to treat it differently than we did," he said.

"In retrospect, I would have liked to have had an immediate reaction" when the meter was vandalized, County Commissioner Elmer C. Lippy Jr. said yesterday.

He added, "We're doing everything we can to ameliorate the problem."

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