The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency was able to capture 64 pounds of mercury that a Craigslist seller found in his late grandfather's garage.
Someone in Floodwood, Minn., posted an ad to sell the 64 pounds of elemental mercury for $650. An alert Craigslist browser contacted the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District, who forwarded the tip to the MPCA.
The MPCA decided it made more sense to buy the mercury and contain it quickly for proper disposal, rather than to start the time-consuming process of a compliance investigation.
The MPCA negotiated a lower price and made the purchase within hours, using grant money. WLSSD staff picked up the mercury at the seller's home, photographed it and examined the property for any mercury contamination (none was found).
The purchase and seizure ensures the mercury won't fall into the wrong hands or harm the environment.
The MPCA learned the seller had inherited the mercury, along with some unused mining equipment, from his grandfather, who had intended to get into gold mining. The mercury was in four sealed plastic bottles and in its original packaging.
Mercury is not illegal to own in Minnesota, but state laws regulate its sale and purchase. Since the person trying to sell the mercury did not do anything illegal in this case, he will not face any penalties.
"The average person may not see how capturing 60-plus pounds of mercury is such a big deal," Jeff Connell of the MPCA said. "What you have to realize is that millions of dollars are spent by coal-burning electric utilities to keep even a fraction of that amount from coming out of their smoke stacks. And if even a few ounces of mercury are spilled, it can set off a major hazardous materials response, which has happened several times in the last decade. The cleanup and response to an incident that released about 12 pounds of mercury in Rosemount several years ago cost nearly $400,000. Being able to take 64 pounds of mercury out of circulation off a simple Internet ad is a phenomenal and fortunate coup."
"This is a great example of how one concerned citizen working hand-in-hand with local and state government can help protect our environment," Connell said. "Anyone who has questions about a chemical or something that doesn't seem quite right should contact their county environmental department or the MPCA to make sure the materials are handled correctly. In this case, the system worked beautifully."
Mercury is a naturally-occurring element, but people release more mercury into the environment than what is released through natural processes. In Minnesota, mercury is released to the environment from coal-burning power plants, taconite processing, and other sources.
Exposure to elemental mercury can damage human health because it is toxic to the kidneys and the nervous system. The most dangerous routes of exposure include long-term exposure to small amounts of spilled mercury, intentional exposure, and occupational exposure. In the environment, elemental mercury can be converted into methylmercury, which then accumulates in the tissues of fish.
The Minnesota Department of Health recommends eating fish as a healthy source of nutrition, but advises choosing smaller fish to minimize exposure to mercury and other toxins.