Company Convicted for Illegally Storing Mercury in Rhode Island

Texas-based Southern Union Company, the former owner of the New England Gas Company, was convicted recently by a federal jury in Providence, R.I., for illegally storing mercury at a site in Pawtucket, R.I., the Justice Department announced. The jury found Southern Union guilty of one felony count of storing hazardous waste without a permit in violation of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. A sentencing hearing has been set for Feb. 20, 2009. Knowingly storing hazardous waste without a permit carries a maximum fine of $50,000 for each day of violation.

During the three-week trial, the government presented evidence that Southern Union began a program in 2001 to remove gas regulators that contained mercury from customers' homes. Southern Union employees brought the regulators to a facility in Pawtucket, on the edge of the Seekonk River. The company initially hired an environmental services company to remove the mercury from the regulators, and then shipped the mercury to a facility in Pennsylvania for further processing. However, when the removal contract expired, gas company technicians continued to remove the regulators from customers' homes, and the company stored the mercury-containing regulators, as well as loose liquid mercury, in various containers including plastic "kiddie pools" in a vacant building at the facility.

The evidence showed that, in 2002, 2003, and 2004, a local gas company official drafted requests for proposals (RFPs) for removal of the mercury that was collecting at the facility. However, the company never finalized the RFPs or put them out to bid. By July 2004, approximately 165 mercury-containing regulators were stored at the site, as were various other containers, such as glass jars and a plastic jug, containing a total of more than a gallon of mercury.

In September 2004, three youths broke into the mercury storage building and took several containers of liquid mercury, DOJ said. They broke some of the containers, spilling mercury around the facility's grounds. They also took some of the mercury to a nearby apartment complex. For about three weeks, puddles of mercury remained on the ground at the site, and more mercury lay spilled at the apartment complex. On Oct. 19, 2004, a gas company employee discovered mercury on the ground of the facility and evidence that there had been a break-in.

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