Officials recover 64 pounds of mercury offered for sale on Craigslist by Northland residentA tip from an alert online shopper who noticed an unusual posting on the Craigslist classified ad website allowed authorities to recover 64 pounds of dangerous elemental mercury from a Floodwood resident.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
A tip from an alert online shopper who noticed an unusual posting on the Craigslist classified ad website allowed authorities to recover 64 pounds of dangerous elemental mercury from a Floodwood resident.
The ad, offering the “instrument grade" mercury in plastic bottles for $650, was posted by a seller who said he found it when cleaning out his late grandfather’s garage.
The alert shopper contacted the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District, which in turn notified the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, triggering an effort last month to get the mercury out of circulation.
PCA officials decided the best action was to immediately purchase the mercury from the seller rather than begin a lengthy and complicated compliance investigation. WLSSD officials then made the buy (at a reduced price) using a state grant and brought the mercury back to the WLSSD Household Hazardous Waste Facility in Duluth for proper disposal.
It’s believed to be the largest such mercury discovery in Minnesota since state regulations have been in place. The seller said his grandfather apparently had planned to use the mercury for mining gold.
Mercury is a natural element but in concentrated form can be extremely toxic, even fatal. Small amounts of mercury can make huge amounts of water toxic to humans. And even small amounts of regular exposure can build up in living organisms and cause reproductive and neurological problems.
State and federal governments have moved to get mercury out of power plant and factory emissions so the mercury doesn’t fall back to earth and become toxic to fish, and the animals and people who eat fish. Regulations also have worked to remove mercury from products such as thermometers, blood pressure gauges, thermostats, light bulbs and switches; they even control the mercury released when dental fillings are burned in crematoriums.
The mercury offered for sale was in four sealed plastic bottles and in its original packaging. Although mercury is not illegal to own in Minnesota, state laws do regulate its sale and purchase. Because the person trying to sell the mercury did not do anything illegal in this case, he will not face any penalties. PCA officials said. Mercury use is legal in certain industrial processes, but its transportation and handling is highly regulated and monitored.
Dealing with a spill — intentional or accidental — of 64 pounds could have been a monumental environmental and human safety crisis. Direct exposure to liquid or vaporized mercury can be hazardous and cause immediate health problems. And that much mercury in a lake or water system would render it unfit for human contact or consumption.
“What you have to realize is that millions of dollars are spent by coal-burning electric utilities to keep even a fraction of that amount from coming out of their smoke stacks. And if even a few ounces of mercury are spilled, it can set off a major hazardous materials response,’’ said Jeff Connell of the PCA.
Connell noted that an emergency response to the spill of about 12 pounds of mercury in Rosemount, Minn., in 2004 cost nearly $525,000, including decontamination of many homes.
Mercury is a naturally occurring element, but human activity releases more mercury to the environment than what is released through natural processes.
“If you find anything suspicious please call your local hazardous waste or household waste office or call us,’’ said Anne Perry Moore, a spokeswoman for the PCA in Duluth. “And please don’t vacuum it up or let it get into the environment.”
For more information go to www.pca.state.mn.us/mercury.