Keeping mercury near GJ sensible

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All of the federal government’s stores of mercury could be stored in a relatively small building in the high desert south of Grand Junction, near the main office of the agency that would monitor it under any circumstances.

Having mercury stored nearby makes sense because the Grand Junction office of the Energy Department has the technical expertise already on staff to make sure the element is stored safely, said Ray Plieness, director of the Office of Site Operations within the Energy Department’s Office of Legacy Management.

Legacy Management oversees long-term surveillance and maintenance activities at 86 sites in 26 states, including the Grand Junction Disposal Site south of the Energy Department compound where Plieness and the environmental-management experts work.

The disposal site was built to contain uranium mill tailings. Local officials insisted at the time it was built that no other materials, especially hazardous materials, be buried there.

If mercury is to be placed there, it wouldn’t be in the disposal cell, but in a nearby building designed specifically for the purpose, Plieness said.

No mercury would come into contact with the mill tailings stored there, and the two functions would remain completely separate, he said.

“We will never impact the UMTRA process” of burying mill tailings produced during Grand Junction’s uranium-milling period.

If storing mercury within the boundaries of the site were to interfere with the mill-tailings disposal, “We’ll pull our name (from the mercury project) in a heartbeat,” Plieness said.

The Grand Junction site is one of seven on a list of possible storage sites being considered by the Energy Department.

Officials who served in Mesa County and Grand Junction governments at the time of the Grand Valley’s mill-tailings cleanup expressed doubts about the mercury project because the Energy Department had agreed no hazardous materials would be disposed of at the site.

The entire site is 1 1/2 miles off U.S, Highway 50 and is fenced and gated. Officials visit the disposal site frequently to conduct environmental assessments around the 94-acre disposal cell. Additional security measures also could be implemented for mercury storage, officials said.

The mercury storage building, which Plieness said might cost in the range of $15 million, would be relatively small and simple.

It would cover about 3 acres and have a solid concrete floor with no drains so any spills could be easily contained.

Inside, there would be thousands of 76-pound cast-steel flasks, looking sort of like seamless milk containers, each holding 2.5 liters of the liquid, silvery metal, which is more than 10 times heavier than water.

Energy Department officials would routinely check for leaks or other problems and the mercury would simply remain on site atop a 700-foot thick layer of Mancos shale unless some use could be found for it.

Over a 40-year period, the department expects to need storage for 7,500 to 10,000 metric tons of mercury.

Storing and monitoring such substance is exactly the job of the Office of Legacy Management, Plieness said.

Congress last year determined that mercury, which is deemed a hazardous material, shouldn’t be exported.

Stockpiles of the element are growing as industry and government find other methods for tasks that previously employed mercury. That means a storage place for it has to be found, he said.

The Energy Department will conduct a public discussion of the project in Grand Junction from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. July 21 at Two Rivers Convention Center.


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