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Large mercury stash recovered

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.

"Exposure to mercury vapors, if it was to become heated in some way, is extremely dangerous," said Carl Herbrandson of the Minnesota Department of Health.

Most of the concern over mercury in recent years has been about airborne deposition -- mercury that goes up in smokestacks and comes back down in rain and snow. But there have been major spills of mercury as well.

In 2004, an emergency response and cleanup of a spill of about 12 pounds of mercury in Rosemount, Minn., 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.

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.

If even one mercury thermometer is broken in a school, it can force the evacuation of the entire building, said Jeff Connell, the PCA's director of compliance and enforcement.

Connell said it was fortuitous the seller decided to list the mercury for sale and even more so that someone thought it odd enough to contact hazardous material authorities.

"Industry spends millions of dollars to keep a fraction of this much mercury out of the environment every year," Connell said "And to think this could have easily ended up in a dumpster."

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.

"It is legal to sell and purchase for very specific, well-regulated purposes, but not for just any reason. In this case we were able to step in and prevent an illegal sale from happening," Connell said, noting no action will be taken against the seller.

Connell noted that 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 do what this person did and 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 just throw it out."

For more information go to

/mercury or contact the state spill hotline at 800- 422-0798.

John Myers is a reporter at

the Duluth News Tribune, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.