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John Myers, Forum Communications Co., Published May 17 2012

Tip leads to recovery of 64 pounds of mercury

DULUTH, Minn. – A tip from an alert online shopper who noticed an unusual posting on Craigslist allowed authorities to recover 64 pounds of dangerous elemental mercury from a Floodwood resident.

The ad, offering the “instrument grade” mercury in four 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 a hurried effort last month to get the mercury out of circulation.

PCA officials decided the best action was to buy the mercury from the seller rather than begin a lengthy and complicated compliance investigation. WLSSD officials made the purchase for $300 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 bonds with gold and often was used so the gold would sink and settle out during prospecting efforts.

Mercury is a natural element, but in concentrated form it can be extremely toxic, even fatal. Small amounts of mercury in certain forms can make huge amounts of water toxic to humans. Even small amounts of regular exposure can build up in living organisms and cause reproductive and neurological problems.

Dealing with a spill of 64 pounds – intentional or accidental – 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, officials said Thursday.

In 2004, an emergency response and cleanup of a spill of about 12 pounds of mercury in Rosemount cost nearly $525,000, according to PCA records. Two teenagers found the mercury in an abandoned home, played with it and eventually exposed 49 people, including 18 children. Many outdoor areas at Rosemount Woods and 14 homes had to be decontaminated, but no severe health problems were reported.

The mercury offered for sale was in four sealed plastic bottles and in its original packaging, WLSSD officials noted. They estimated it was about 20 years old. Although mercury is not illegal to own in Minnesota, state laws do regulate its sale and purchase.

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John Myers writes for The Duluth News Tribune