Feds vow cooperation on mercury

Opinions split on idea of storage near GJ

Brian Harris of Grand Junction listens to Bill Levitan, director of environmental compliance for the U.S. department of Energy. The department is conducting a scoping session for the possible storage of mercury at the Grand Junction Disposal Site south of the city



By GARY HARMON
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U.S. Department of Energy officials vowed Tuesday to work closely with Mesa County if they move forward with a possible mercury-storage building south of Grand Junction.

The promise came during the first scoping session for the department’s plan to find a home for as much as 17,000 tons of mercury over the next 40 years.

Local officials said they were unaware Mesa County was one of seven potential locations for the element until they read about it in the newspaper.

That prompted Ray Plieness, director of the Office of Site Operations within the department’s Office of Legacy Management, to tell about 80 people gathered in Two Rivers Convention Center that the agency “had not been forthcoming to the degree it probably should have.”

The Grand Junction Projects Office proposed to store mercury in Mesa County because of the quality of the location and the proximity of experts in Grand Junction, Plieness said.

Should officials settle on the Grand Junction Disposal Site as a storage location, “DOE will do what it takes” to cooperate with local officials, Plieness said.

The Department of Energy already has worked with the county to build the disposal site for millions of tons of uranium mill tailings 18 miles south of Grand Junction. A mercury-storage building could be constructed on the site, below the disposal cell containing the mill tailings.

Several speakers at the scoping hearing, however, said the Energy Department should look elsewhere.

Storing mercury in Mesa County is not appropriate, said Nancy Terrill, who added she suffered mercury poisoning, which manifested itself with neurological symptoms that eased only after years of treatment.

“It’s real,” she said of illness.

She also said Mesa County already has its share of toxins.

Brian Harris, whose family owns land near the existing disposal cell, said he had hoped someday to see the land subdivided and developed.

That time could be years off, though, and Harris said he wanted to see the project well handled if it goes forward.

“We’ve got to do something with it,” he said of the mercury collected by the federal government from a variety of activities. “Why not take control of it?”

The Energy Department has about 1,200 tons of mercury stored in Tennessee, and the Defense Department has about 4,400 tons scattered in several locations.

Placing that mercury as well as other stores in Grand Junction would be a “huge economic stigma, a health stigma and an environmental stigma” for the county, said Janet Johnson, who also opposes efforts to build a uranium mill in western Colorado.

Mercury would be transported through Montrose and Delta counties to the Mesa County site, and those counties deserve better, Johnson said.

Opponents of the proposal made it sound as though it called for mercury to be poured into a hole in the ground, said Jack Kingsley, a retired physicist.

Mercury “is not that hard to seal up,” Kingsley said. “A lot of the concerns have been overblown.”

Plans call for the construction of a building of about 150,000 square feet that would hold thousands of 76-pound steel flasks, each containing 2.5 liters of the liquid, silvery metal, which is more than 10 times heavier than water.

The building, which would look much “like a Wal-Mart or a Costco,” would have sealed concrete floors that would contain any leaks, said David Levenstein of the Energy Department.

The building also would sit atop a 700-foot-deep layer of Mancos shale. Officials chose the mill-tailings site for the impervious shale, which would prevent leakage into groundwater.

If the Energy Department moves forward with the Grand Junction site, it would bear “an especially high burden” to show the project would be safe, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said.

Health Department Director Jim Martin, in a letter read by community-involvement manager Warren Smith, said the storage project would have to show “near zero risk” of water or groundwater contamination.

State officials also would have to be involved as full partners, Martin wrote.

Opponents cited the agreement with the county that called for the disposal site to be used only for locally generated radioactive materials. Previous county commissioners have said they expected the site to remain limited to that purpose. One of them, Jim Spehar, said because of that and other reasons, the proposal should be a “nonstarter.”

The Grand Junction Disposal Site is one of seven locations under consideration. Others are the Idaho National Laboratory; the Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington state; Hawthorne Army Depot in Nevada; the Kansas City Plant in Missouri; the Savannah River Site in South Carolina; and Waste Control Specialists in Andrews, Texas.

The Energy Department will return to Grand Junction sometime between November and January with a draft environmental-impact statement that could include a preferred alternative, which will be subject to public comment.

Comment can be made on the scoping phase of the project at http://www.mercurystorageeis.com.

The Energy Department will conduct other scoping meetings around the country as officials move to designate a storage location by January and have it in operation by 2013, the same time at which all mercury exports from the United States are to cease.


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