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The original item was published from 3/4/2015 11:46:39 AM to 3/4/2015 12:27:22 PM.

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Posted on: March 4, 2015

[ARCHIVED] City Manager Releases Statement Regarding WWTP Mercury Incident, Steps Taken to Improve Safety

EAST LANSING, Mich. — East Lansing City Manager George Lahanas read a statement at last night’s East Lansing City Council meeting, which is now being released to the public:

“At this time, I would like to make a statement regarding our Waste Water Treatment Plant (WWTP) and the mercury incident that occurred over a year ago as well as the steps we have taken to improve overall plant safety. Because we are currently defendants in a lawsuit, at the advice of our counsel I am limited in what I can say. Despite this, because the issues involved are important to our residents and employees, I feel it is necessary for you to hear from me directly.

As a local government, we understand our central role in protecting lives, property and being good stewards of the environment. In safeguarding the environment, we provide refuse and recycling services to our residents, treat waste water and return clean water to the Red Cedar River. Over a year ago, a mercury spill occurred at the WWTP. MIOSHA, which is the state agency trained to investigate incidents such as a mercury spill, came to our WWTP and conducted a thorough investigation and made recommendations regarding the appropriate cleanup and safety precautions to ensure against future incidents. All of the recommendations by MIOSHA were followed and implemented. Fortunately, from our review of the relevant documentation, we can conclude that no employee suffered any injury and there was no detectable damage to the environment. All of the employees who were in any way in contact with the mercury were tested and showed no adverse impact, and measurements of the outflow into the river showed no increased levels of mercury.

In running a WWTP, such as in the City of East Lansing, accidents of this nature do and will occur. Unfortunately, some mistakes were made, but we are confident that we have learned from the mistakes and have made all necessary corrections.

We have also received complaints from the WWTP staff regarding asbestos in the WWTP. Like all older buildings and facilities, the WWTP has asbestos in numerous areas, including insulation around pipes. While the law does not require the removal of asbestos, it does require an employer to have a survey identifying the areas where the material is located, proper signage in asbestos locations throughout the facility and training for employees who work in capacities where they might disturb that material. In anticipation of certain construction projects, the WWTP management had a survey completed. It appears that the survey may not have been properly shared with staff and the signage did not meet all MIOSHA expectations. Appropriate training and signage has now occurred. The WWTP management also determined that it was in the best interest of the City, its employees and the public to contract with an asbestos abatement firm to remove all remaining asbestos in areas where there is any potential for employee contact. The work on this $90,000 contract is nearly complete.

The mercury spill referenced above occurred in October 2013. Our investigation established that management was not informed about the spill until March 2014. An internal investigation was conducted by our Human Resources department with regard to personnel matters. One supervisory employee did not return to the WWTP after the investigation was completed. The former Department of Public Works (DPW) director, Todd Sneathen, and the WWTP superintendent, Catherine Garnham, elected to accept other career opportunities and voluntarily resigned from their positions. Our investigation established that both were hard-working and dedicated employees who worked closely with City officials and MIOSHA officials to remedy the mercury spill problems. The Human Resources department immediately started a search to replace these individuals and was successful in hiring WWTP Superintendent Paul Stokes in August 2014, DPW Director Scott House in October 2014 and WWTP Assistant Superintendent Todd Nichols in October 2014. This new leadership group has the combination of experience, training and ability to implement all of the recommended improvements and upgrades.

The safety of both residents and employees is of great importance to us. When management was notified of the mercury incident, appropriate actions were immediately taken and additional safety improvements have been implemented over the past year. We have updated or adopted a number of safety-related policies, delivered training to better prepare our employees and improved safety through upgrades and modifications to the physical plant as well as safety equipment. While we have made good progress, we still believe we can do better. In consultation with DPW leadership, it has been decided to utilize outside experts to do a full review of plant safety. We have begun the process of requesting proposals from firms and organizations that will review, recommend and implement policies and practices related to overall plant safety. This work will take place over the coming months.

We also see direct examples that the work we are doing is paying off. This past December, we had an incident that tested our response. An employee, while conducting regular plant maintenance, observed what they thought could be a very small bead of mercury. The employee notified the plant superintendent, who then sealed off the area and contacted public health. No mercury was found, but it demonstrates that the policies

and awareness resulted in the correct handling of a similar incident.

In reviewing safety concerns from the WWTP, I wanted to get a sound understanding of what our safety experience has been at the WWTP in recent history. I reviewed OSHA reportable injuries which resulted in lost time from the last five years in order to get a good picture of how employees have been affected. Lost time means that an injury or illness resulted in an employee missing work in order to recover. Over the last five years, we have had only one injury that resulted in missed time from work. The injury, a back strain, resulted in three days of missed work. The WWTP has 17 full-time employees. Over a five-year period, they would have worked a total of 176,800 hours. That is the equivalent of one person working 85 years, full time, with only one work-related injury or illness that was serious enough to miss time from work. We were certainly pleased with this initial analysis of the data, which confirms that our employees work in a safe environment.

Mistakes have been made, but we are moving forward and making good progress. We will continue to work with our employees and MIOSHA to improve any areas that require further attention. We take the safety of residents and our employees as the highest priority. Our role as stewards of the environment will also remain at the forefront. We appreciate Council’s support over the last year and look forward to continuing our progress.”

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