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EPA Investigating Nicor's Mercury Disposal

EPA Investigating Nicor's Mercury Disposal

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last week began investigating how Illinois' Nicor Gas disposes of its used gas regulators after investigators found mercury contamination at a scrap yard used by the company. EPA already has begun testing five Nicor service centers and other scrap yards for mercury contamination.

Nicor also was hit with a second piece of bad news last week: the Illinois attorney general, the Cook County state's attorney and the DuPage County state's attorney filed a joint lawsuit against the company related to the possible mercury contamination. Homeowners also have begun filing lawsuits related to the mercury contamination, which has forced some residents already to evacuate.

Nicor CEO Tom Fisher said he was disappointed by the lawsuits, and said the company would "act as quickly as possible to inspect all customer premises."

The regulatory scrutiny and litigation follows a plan announced by Nicor on Aug. 30 where it voluntarily agreed to inspect up to 200,000 homes in its service territory that may be contaminated by mercury used in old-style regulators. Nicor Gas serves more than 1.9 million customers in a service area that includes most of the northern third of Illinois, except for the City of Chicago.

Nicor has given EPA a list of about 15 scrapyards where the old gas regulators may have been sent, and last week, EPA had found mercury contamination at a Chicago Heights scrap yard allegedly used by Nicor. Federal regulations require that toxic substances, including mercury, be removed from equipment and properly disposed of before the equipment is sent to a landfill. The mercury waste is supposed to be sent to a licensed hazardous waste landfill or recycled following federal rules.

If EPA and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) find evidence that Nicor improperly disposed of the mercury, the company would be required to pay for any cleanup costs under the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response and Liability Act, commonly known as Superfund. IEPA also could assess cleanup costs of its own.

Nicor decided on its own to inspect the 200,000 older homes in its service area after one of its crews found mercury in a home where an old gas-meter regulator had been removed by a Nicor technician in 1989. In early August, Nicor found mercury contamination at the home and cleaned up the spill. It then began testing other homes where the same contractor had removed old gas meters. Mercury was also found in those homes, according to EPA.

Old-style gas regulators - mostly built before 1960 - contained two teaspoons of mercury that controlled the flow of natural gas. Nicor said its tests would be done on homes built before 1961. Homes with old-style meters outside of the homes and systems operated at low pressure are not likely to have problems.

Carolyn Davis, Houston

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