WASHINGTON—The Southern Union Company, the Texas-based former owner of the New England Gas Company, was convicted today by a federal jury in Providence, R.I., for illegally storing mercury at a site in Pawtucket, R.I., the Justice Department announced.
The jury found Southern Union guilty of one felony count of storing hazardous waste without a permit in violation of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
During the three week trial, the government presented evidence that Southern Union began a program in 2001 to remove gas regulators that contained mercury from customers’ homes. Southern Union employees brought the regulators to a facility in Pawtucket, on the edge of the Seekonk River. Southern Union initially hired an environmental services company to remove the mercury from the regulators, and then shipped the mercury to a facility in Pennsylvania for further processing.
When the removal contract expired, gas company technicians continued to remove the regulators from customers’ homes. The company stored the mercury-containing regulators, as well as loose liquid mercury, in various containers including plastic kiddie pools in a vacant building at the facility.
The evidence showed that, in 2002, 2003 and 2004, a local gas company official drafted requests for proposals (RFPs) for removal of the mercury that was collecting at the facility. However the company never finalized the RFPs or put them out to bid. By July 2004, approximately 165 mercury-containing regulators were stored at the site, as were various other containers, such as glass jars and a plastic jug, containing a total of more than a gallon of mercury.
In September 2004, three youths broke into the mercury storage building and took several containers of liquid mercury. They broke some of the containers, spilling mercury around the facility’s grounds. They also took some of the mercury to a nearby apartment complex. For about three weeks, puddles of mercury remained on the ground at the site, and more mercury lay spilled at the apartment complex. On Oct. 19, 2004, a gas company employee discovered mercury on the ground of the facility and evidence that there had been a break-in.
“Today a jury found that Southern Union knowingly stored liquid mercury without obtaining the proper permits in violation of federal law,” said Ronald J. Tenpas, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “With this guilty verdict, the jury has reinforced the message that we as a society will hold accountable any company that fails to meet its responsibilities under the law.”
A sentencing hearing has been set for Feb. 20, 2009. Knowingly storing hazardous waste without a permit carries a maximum fine of $50,000 for each day of violation.
The investigation was a joint effort of the Environmental Protection Agency, Criminal Investigation Division (EPA-CID) and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, Office of Criminal Investigation. Terrence P. Donnelly, Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Rhode Island, Kevin Cassidy, trial attorney for the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section, and Dianne Chabot, an attorney with the EPA-CID prosecuted the case.