Wastewater Board Explains Mercury Mishap


The Oak Bluffs wastewater commission declared this week that the mercury exposure incident at the town treatment plant is no cause for public alarm and is being handled responsibly by plant superintendent Joseph Alosso.

"We are on top of this thing," said commission chairman John Leite 3rd. "Our manager has been on top of it. We don't micromanage. We give him latitude to run the plan. He has called us every step of the way. We are going to solve this problem, if it exists."

The comment came during a meeting of the commission held Monday night in Oak Bluffs, less than a week after it was revealed that two employees at the treatment plant had tested positive for elevated levels of mercury.

In a letter written late last week, the board of health called on the selectmen to close the wastewater plant until testing demonstrated that the facility was safe. A copy of the letter was sent to the wastewater commission. The commission responded to the board of health with its own letter. "[We] would like to assure the board of health that although this is not a public health issue, we do appreciate their concern. It is our intention to continue servicing the 700 customers in the town of Oak Bluffs who rely on us for the proper collection, treatment and disposal of their wastewater, thus avoiding a real public health issue for the town," the letter said.

Testing was conducted Monday at the plant to determine if mercury was present in the air or on the physical surfaces of the laboratory. Mr. Alosso and town administrator Casey Sharpe said they have been in touch with the state Division of Occupational Safety on the matter.

The board of health now is calling for an overall safety audit at the wastewater plant. Health agent Shirley Fauteux said the Barnstable County Health Department would be willing to conduct an audit at no cost to the town. Board chairman William White said that although he felt there was a valid public health concern, he understood why the wastewater commission wanted to keep the plant open. Mr. White said the board addressed its letter to the selectmen because they are responsible for town safety.

Mr. Leite said the safety of plant employees and the general public is paramount to the commission.

On Monday, the commission issued a press release. "[The commission] would like to assure everyone that all proper precautions are being taken regarding the handling and use of Nessler's Reagent, which contains mercuric iodide . . . . Nessler's Reagent is widely used at wastewater treatment facilities to test for the presence of ammonia nitrogen. We know of no other reports of adverse effects on personnel who have used this material."

The Edgartown wastewater treatment facility, which Mr. Alosso also supervises, also has used Nessler's Reagent for ammonia testing. No information was available this week on whether the Edgartown plant is continuing to use the material to conduct the test. One member of the Oak Bluffs board of health questioned whether Mr. Alosso is able to adequately supervise both the Oak Bluffs and Edgartown plants.

The Edgartown personnel board considers Mr. Alosso a full-time employee. In 2003, the most recent full calendar year for which employee payment information is available, the town paid him $61,818. At present, he is paid at an hourly rate that works out to $69,118 a year. In Oak Bluffs, Mr. Alosso is under contract for $40,000 a year. According to that contract: "The hours [Mr.] Alosso works will not be associated with the typical Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. workday. However, it is anticipated that [Mr.] Alosso shall devote at least 20 hours per week to the duties required in this agreement." Last year, Oak Bluffs paid Mr. Alosso $51,981. The additional pay stemmed from his pay as a board of health member and for monitoring three state-mandated monitoring projects.

At Monday's wastewater commission meeting, Mr. Alosso said of the two employees who tested positive for elevated mercury levels, one continues to show elevated levels while thelevels of the other had returned to normal. He said the employees would travel to Boston on Tuesday to be tested by a specialist. Both employees had returned to work, but now are remaining out of work while testing continues.

The employees had been using mercuric iodide, a mercury-based chemical, in a routine test performed at the plant. Mr. Alosso said mercuric iodide has since been removed from the building, and plant employees are no longer conducting the flow test using the chemical. Mr. Alosso said he is researching the matter to see if safer alternatives can be found.

Members of the commission said any future testing would be conducted with a fume hood. Mr. Alosso said the guidelines for handling mercuric iodide did not specify use of a fume hood.

Blood tests were conducted on plant employees after one worker on Dec. 26 reported symptoms consistent with mercury poisoning. Commission member Russell Rogers said he believes the incident was a fluke, because the same material has long been used at the Edgartown wastewater treatment plant. Mr. Alosso said he has been around the material for 17 years with no ill effects.

On Monday the wastewater commission also agreed to cooperate with a public records request from the board of health to the board of selectmen seeking documentation describing the use, storage and transporting of the mercuric iodide used at the treatment plant.

At Oak Bluffs, Mr. Alosso said, mercuric iodide arrives in a package via UPS. After its use, he said, the material is stored at the plant and disposed of through periodic hazardous waste collections on the Island. Asked why the commission had not gone public sooner with information about the mercury exposure, Mr. Alosso responded: "I don't know that it is something that we would share with the public."

Mr. Leite agreed.

"This is not a public access institution," he said. "This is a wastewater plant. People don't visit our plant. None of us want to be in this building or this room if it's unsafe."

In a Dec. 28 memorandum to plant employees, released at Monday's meeting, Mr. Alosso advised workers that an employee had been found with elevated mercury levels. But selectman and board chairman Roger Wey did not learn about the problem until last Thursday, when Mr. White told him.

Mr. White said Ms. Fauteux learned of the problem through an anonymous telephone call.