At a Mojave Desert chemical plant, a demolition crew toppled a 50-foot-high tank, accidentally spilling an estimated 90 to 100 pounds of highly toxic mercury and contaminating the workers’ clothing.
About two weeks later, a crew knocked down a second 50-foot-high tank, spilling another estimated 90 to 100 pounds of mercury at the same Searles Valley Minerals plant 170 miles northeast of Los Angeles.
Together, the two incidents produced the West’s biggest spill of mercury – a potent neurotoxin – in two decades, said Robert Wise, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on-scene coordinator. He said he has referred the matter to the U.S. Department of Justice for review.
Government documents suggest that Searles Valley Minerals failed to follow proper procedures for reporting the spills and also initially understated the amount of mercury that had been spilled.
According to an EPA report and interviews, the company’s failure to follow proper reporting procedures might have exacerbated health risks to six demolition workers who still had mercury on their clothes weeks after the first spill.
Exposure to mercury occurs from breathing contaminated air, and experts say that at high levels, mercury can damage the brain, kidneys and a developing fetus.
Searles Valley Minerals’ executive director, Arzell Hale, defended the company’s actions, saying the Sept. 24 spill was inadvertent and the Oct. 10 spill occurred because of a contractor’s mistake. He said he was unaware of any damage to workers’ health.