Posted by: Lawyer Sanders | October 13, 2009

Kentucky environmental attorney Sanders says federal district judge fines Southern Union Company $18 million for illegal mercury storage, and company appeals.

A federal judge assessed the Southern Union Company $18 million for illegally storing mercury at a company-owned site in Pawtucket. The sentence imposed in federal court includes a $6 million criminal fine and $12 million in payments to community initiatives including the Rhode Island Foundation, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) Emergency Response Fund and Hasbro’s Children’s Hospital.

In October 2008, a jury in Providence found Southern Union guilty of illegally storing mercury for several years at a site off Tidewater Street, near the Seekonk River. The Houston-based company owned New England Gas for several years.

During the trial in 2008, the government presented evidence that, in 2001, Southern Union began removing from customers’ homes gas regulators that contained mercury. Southern Union employees brought the regulators to a facility on Tidewater Street in Pawtucket, where the regulators, and later loose mercury, were stored in a shed. Southern Union initially hired an environmental services company to prepare the mercury for shipment to a processing facility in Pennsylvania.

The recycling and reclamation ceased at the end of 2001. However, gas company technicians continued to remove regulators from customers’ homes, and the company continued to store at Tidewater Street both loose liquid mercury – in containers such as glass jars and a plastic jug – and regulators that still contained mercury. Apparently hoping that the mercury would be forgotten, a local company official drafted proposals to renew the removal project, but the company never finalized those proposals or put them out to bid.

Three years later, in September 2004, three unsuspecting youths broke into the mercury storage building and took several containers of liquid mercury. Being totally stupid, they broke some of them, spilling mercury around the facility’s grounds, and took some of the mercury to a nearby apartment complex, where it was also spilled.

For about three weeks, spilled mercury remained undetected at the Tidewater facility and at the apartment complex. After the contamination was discovered, the apartment complex was evacuated, and its 150 tenants were displaced for two months while the mercury was cleaned up.

In addition to fining Southern Union $6 million, Judge Smith put the company on two years probation. As a condition of probation, he ordered the company to pay $11 million to the Rhode Island Foundation for the establishment of environmental remediation and education projects and children’s health initiatives.

He also ordered that the company pay $1 million in $200,000 increments to the Rhode Island chapter of the American Red Cross, Hasbro’s Children’s Hospital and the DEM Environmental Response Fund. Judge Smith stayed the fine and other assessments while the company appeals the conviction.

The investigation that led to the prosecution was a joint effort of the Environmental Protection Agency, Criminal Investigation Division; the DEM, Office of Criminal Investigation; the DEM Office of Emergency Response and the DEM Office of Compliance and Inspection.  The case was prosecuted by the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division and the U.S. Attorney’s office for the District of Rhode Island.

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