Tooele Could Become Central Repository for Mercury

Tooele Could Become Central Repository for Mercury

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John Hollenhorst ReportingA Tooele County official is waving a red flag about a subject that has received virtually no public discussion. Tooele County may soon become the nation's first central repository for, of all things, Mercury -- the liquid metal best known for its use in thermometers.

Harry Shinton, Tooele County HazMat: "I think anything that can hurt you needs to be secured."

But, how secure is it to store huge amounts of a very dangerous substance in 60-year old buildings?

Tooele County has already achieved fame, or notoriety as the home of nerve gas, hazardous waste, radioactive waste and toxic pollution. Mercury is perhaps less alarming, but it can be dangerous. And the amount they’re talking about is truly astonishing.

Imagine almost 5,000 tons of mercury inside buildings at the former Tooele Army Depot. It's reportedly a front-runner for the National emergency stockpile. Most Utahns probably didn't know we had one, but the US stores 4,800 extra tons of mercury in case we ever run short.

Mark Smith, Utah Industrial Depot: "The United States uses about 300 tons a year of mercury."

The liquid metal is currently stored in thousands of small flasks at four facilities around the country. The new plan is to move it all to one place.

Mark Smith, Utah Industrial Depot: "And they triple over-pack the product to insure there's no leakage, either of liquid elemental mercury or vapor."

Inhaled mercury vapor can cause a variety of serious health effects, even death. That's why Tooele County's Hazardous Materials planner is concerned. Are the old World War II buildings secure enough? What would happen if there were a big fire?

Harry Shinton, County HazMat Planner: "How you gonna catch those vapors. Those are toxic fumes. It targets certain organs within the body, be it the liver, be it the kidneys."

Shinton doesn't necessarily oppose it, but he's frustrated the federal government won't answer key questions such as, 'What if there's a spill?'

Harry Shinton, County HazMat Planner: "You need a special vacuum. You need a special absorbent to contain this material. And we don't have it."

But the industrial depot's owners say they'll hire contractors to handle any problems. And in a community with a long history of living alongside nerve gas, the Mayor isn't even slightly worried.

Charlie Roberts, Mayor of Tooele: "The risk of this is so minimal, I don't even see that being a blip on the radar screen."

The HazMat official says the federal government has done a poor job of putting out information, an almost non-existent job of seeking public input. Public comment expires next week, and the decision could be just weeks away.

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