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DEC fines Bethlehem for mercury spills

Any discharge of mercury over 1 pound must be reported to the DEC, according to Georgeson.

Cunningham fired back, saying the consent order was "filled in inaccuracies," and the 20 pounds of mercury refers to two jars containing the toxic metal, which were housed in a storage shed behind the water plant and not inside of the plant as the DEC contended.

He maintained that less than a pound of mercury spilled out of a flow meter onto the water plant floor.

"We finally conceded to the consent order and moved on because we couldn't prove when the mercury was spilled and on the advice of counsel we conceded and paid the fine," Cunningham said. "We would have ended up in front of a DEC judge over this."

As for why the mercury was at the plant to begin with, Cunningham said that he asked "the guy who's been there the longest, and he said it's always been there, but we don't know why."

Cunningham also said that licensed hazardous waste removal crews properly disposed of the sealed containers of mercury and other contaminated items and that "they believed inaccurately that a mop was used to clean up mercury and was thrown away."

The DEC stated in its consent order signed by the town that there was an estimated 1,000 pounds of mercury and mercury-contaminated debris involved with the incidents at the water plant.

The New York State Departments of Health and Environmental Conservation said exposure to high levels of mercury "can cause permanent damage to the nervous system and brain, kidneys and developing fetus. Mercury affects many different brain functions and a variety of symptoms may occur."

Georgeson said a very small amount of mercury, .07 nanograms per liter, could contaminate a drinking water supply.

"The New York State Departments of Health and Environmental Conservation recommend that a trained professional, such as a hazardous waste contractor, do the cleanup whenever the amount of mercury spilled is greater than what is typically found in a fever thermometer or thermostat," according to the department of health Web site. "In other words, if the amount of mercury spilled exceeds 3 grams, or about the size of a green pea, a trained professional should do the cleanup."

Cunningham said the town did follow the recommendations of the DEC and Department of Health and that Bethlehem is in full compliance and all mercury has been removed from the site, and bids are being put out to replace the mercury flow meters.

The supervisor and the DEC both pointed out the town has been fully cooperative.

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