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Remove Mercury Stocks

Arthur J. Rocque Jr., Bangor Daily News, OPINION - 18 November 2000
In order to eliminate any confusion between fact and partisanship, I have waited until after the election to write this commentary. I am writing about HoltraChem Inc. in Orrington and concern over the fate of approximately 260,000 pounds of elementary mercury on the premises.

As many of your readers already know, HoltraChem Inc. has announced it is closing, one of the likely results of which will be the auctioning of its mercury stocks on the open market. The value of this material is on the order of $ 100,000, a small sum when compared to the value of the extensive efforts the New England states alone are making to remove small amounts of mercury from the environment.

In Connecticut, for example, we have a goal to collect 2,001 pounds (a ton plus one) in the year 2001 at the cost of several thousand dollars as a promotional activity to dramatize the negative effect of mercury on public health and the natural environment.

Other states in the region have similar efforts underway. It is a fact that atmospheric deposition of mercury from upwind sources isone of the most significant environmental issues currently facing northeastern states. Fish in Maine lakes many miles from any possible source of contamination contain alarming levels of mercury as do fish in every state in the northeast.

Current research suggests that this is at the very least an international, if not global, phenomenon.

More important, mercury is a cumulative contaminant which has more profound health impacts as more is consumed. Infants and children, due to low body weight and potentially long life exposure times, are more at risk.

In September, at a meeting with my fellow New England Commissioners and the Regional EPA Administrator, I proposed that we join in the bidding process to remove HoltraChem mercury stocks from the global market and pledged Connecticut's direct financial assistance in obtaining the necessary funds.

The proposal was unanimously accepted with the Regional Administrator agreeing to take the point on organizing our efforts.

Regrettably, (some might say inevitably) she hit a roadblock - where to store the mercury if purchased.

The most direct answer, of course, was to get the United States Department of Defense to take custody and place it with the several thousand tons of mercury they already have in storage. The administrator's energetic petition for assistance through her headquarters in Washington D.C. were met with disinterest and ultimately rejection by the Department of Defense.

I think it a sad commentary that a federal administration that prides itself on (and even brags about) its environmental record cannot influence its own administrators to do the right thing, especially in a Department of Defense lead by a former U.S. senator from the state in which the problem is located. Perhaps with a concerted grass-roots effort, it is not too late.

The risk to the Department of Defense is small and the cost to taxpayers is trivial when compared to the long-term cost of failing to act. The latest intelligence is that the mercury will be sold to a bidder from India where it will be shipped for manufacture as mercury thermometers for worldwide distribution.

Sadly, a significant portion of these devices already made obsolete by digital thermometers ill find their way back to the United States and, through our waste streams, into the natural environment.

I know my fellow commissioners and the regional administrator from New England share my frustration that this very simple, direct solution to a problem that, left unsolved, has only negative outcomes was impossible to achieve.

Arthur J. Rocque Jr is the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection for the state of Connecticut.

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