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Gas meter removal results in toxic mercury spills Chicago gas utility monitors for leaks from replacing old gauges By Julie Appleby USA TODAY

Worried Chicago-area residents got details Wednesday of a plan to screen up to 200,000 homes for toxic mercury -- stemming from a gas company's effort to remove old pressure meters.

A task force of federal and state officials is overseeing the cleanup, while utilities nationwide are paying close attention and reviewing their own meter-removal records.

The problem in Chicago surfaced in July, when a homeowner called Nicor Gas to report finding a pool of silvery liquid. At the time, Nicor was replacing old gas meters and pressure regulators inside homes with outdoor models.

Only pre-1961 pressure regulators are of concern, as some contained mercury. The toxic metal is sealed inside the devices, which are safe while intact. But mercury can escape if the device leaks or is improperly removed.

Short exposures to mercury are generally not harmful, but, long term, the metal can cause brain and kidney damage, particularly when it vaporizes.

Many gas companies replaced the old-style meters during the past couple of decades, but there are no accurate counts of how many remain.

Nationally, it is not the first time removal programs have resulted in spills.

* In Pennsylvania in 1995, a gas utility worker spilled mercury in a basement; it was discovered by the homeowner three months later. By then, the mercury had been tracked through the home. The EPA and other agencies were called in. Ultimately, the home and its entire contents had to be destroyed. None of the other homes on the block, which were also part of the meter-replacement effort, were affected.

* The New York State Department of Health says half of the mercury spills in homes from 1992 to 1997 occurred during utility company work on gas meters or regulators.

At first, Nicor said the only homes at risk were a few hundred whose meters were replaced by subcontractor Henkels & McCoy, one of the nation's largest construction and engineering firms. But over the weekend, Nicor discovered a mercury-contaminated home whose gas regulator had been replaced by Nicor's workers in 1989.

That prompted Nicor to expand its screening to 200,000 homes, with priority to 15,000 where meters were replaced in the last five years. By Wednesday, 46 homes of 322 tested were found with higher-than-normal mercury levels. Several families have been evacuated; 10 homeowners have filed a lawsuit against Nicor and its contractor.

Nationally, other utilities are reviewing records to check whether they ever used mercury-containing meters -- and whether those meters were removed. Reliant Energy Minnegasco in Minneapolis is typical: ''We're trying to find out what's going on in Chicago and whether this is even an issue for us,'' says spokesman Al Swintek.

-- Martin Thompson (, August 31, 2000


Gas meters dumped with mercury inside Nicor admits it didn't check devices sold to suburban scrapyard

By Ray Gibson Tribune Staff Writer September 2, 2000

Nicor Gas company officials Friday conceded that they had failed to empty mercury-filled gas meters before they were dumped at a south suburban scrapyard and regulators say they will begin checking at least 15 other scrapyards throughout Northern Illinois where gas meters were discarded.

Craig Whyte, a spokesman for the company, said Friday that Nicor was reviewing the procedures it uses to drain the two teaspoons of mercury from reservoirs in the meters, following the discovery of hundreds of discarded gas meters at Iron & Supply Co. in Chicago Heights.

"It is obvious that some of those (gas meters) were not drained," he said. "We don't know why that would have happened. That's why we're investigating."

A flock of regulators, law enforcement personnel and Nicor staff were at the Chicago Heights location Friday, trying to sort out how many meters were at the site and their condition. Ten of 12 meters examined Friday still had mercury in the reservoirs.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency said tests taken near two piles of meters and two tanks containing other meters showed there were low levels of mercury, below thresholds for immediate health concerns, according to agency officials.

Agency spokesman Dennis McMurray said soil samples from the yard were also taken, but it will be some time before the results are known.

Teaming up with their federal counterparts, state environmental inspectors will work through the Labor Day weekend to inspect the other scrapyards that also obtained meters from Nicor. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Friday those inspections would cover 15 Northern Illinois scrapyards.

Whyte said Nicor is also sending out inspectors to conduct visual examinations of those facilities and conduct tests, if necessary, but state EPA officials said later that they had asked the company to delay such cleanup plans.

Whyte said Nicor "didn't have a clue" how many meters were discarded at the Chicago Heights scrapyard. "We have people out there cleaning them up now," he said.

Law enforcement sources at the scene said there were hundreds of meters at the site. Most of the meters were corroded, and investigators decided not to open them because it would have required the use of a cutting torch, which would have sent mercury fumes into the air.

According to law enforcement sources, the owner of the scrapyard had been buying the meters from Nicor since 1988, and he said he had never been told they might contain mercury.

Even before Thursday's discovery, the federal Occupation Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), which is empowered to protect workers' health, had opened an investigation into Nicor and a contractor who was involved in the removal of 200,000 gas meters from suburban homes, the agency said.

The Cook County state's attorney, the Illinois attorney general, OSHA and both the federal and state EPA all had investigators at the Chicago Heights location Friday.

Atty. Gen. Jim Ryan's office had demanded that Nicor turn over extensive documentation about how it handled the entire process of removing and disposing of the meters, and the company did so Friday.

Lori Corral, spokeswoman for Ryan, said the office is reviewing the Chicago Heights site for possible civil or criminal violations of state environmental laws.

Corral said among the records the office asked Nicor to produce were documentation showing all companies that were hired by the gas company to remove the 200,000 meters, the locations of all those meters, what scrapyards picked up the meters and how the mercury has been disposed.

A spokesman for the state EPA said Friday that the agency believed the company was recycling the mercury, which does not require permits.

Whyte said he wasn't sure how the company disposed of the hazardous waste, but the gas company was in the process of reviewing it.

Long-term exposure to mercury, even in small amounts, can cause damage to the brain, kidney, lungs and the developing fetus. Once it enters the body, it can take months before it is eliminated.

Nicor hasn't installed any meters that use mercury since 1961. The company has 17 inspection and cleanup crews in the field, targeting 15,000 homes in which the meters were removed and replaced in the last five years.

OSHA began investigating Nicor Aug. 24 after receiving a complaint, officials said. Inspectors went to a Glen Ellyn yard where gas meters are stored and conducted some testing for mercury and interviewed employees.

Whyte said the OSHA tests didn't discover any contamination, but after the federal inspectors left, Nicor discovered some contamination, cleaned it up and notified the federal agency.

OSHA also conducted an inspection Thursday at the offices of Henkels & McCoy Inc., the Pennsylvania-based contractor who performed some of the work. That testing was done at an Addison office of the company.

Chicago Heights Mayor Angelo Ciambrone said he is going to insist the yard be cleaned "somehow, some way and as soon as possible.",2669,ART- 46709,FF.html

-- Martin Thompson (, September 02, 2000.

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