Preparing for shipment

“It’s a little upsetting to know you’re working yourself out of a job,” said James Farley of Hillsborough, N.J., last month.

Farley is manager of a federal depot in Hillsborough where defense workers are preparing to move stores of mercury to a new site in Hawthorne in Nevada’s Mineral County. The depot holds 2,615 metric tons of mercury, about 60 percent of the nation’s defense stockpile of the toxic stuff.

Last month at a public meeting, Pentagon official Cornel A. Holder told 50 concerned residents that there was nothing to worry about. He said that even before the move to Nevada was decided on, $1.5 million had been spent to repackage the 75,880 steel flasks of mercury into 12,647 steel drums to address residents’ concerns. The drums are sealed by an airtight lid which is clamped into place by a locking ring with a heavy, rubber gasket.

“Nothing is going to get out of that drum,” Holder said. “Nothing is coming out of that warehouse. It has been a long road and the most important thing on that long road has been safety.”

Residents of Hillsborough Township learned of the mercury in their midst in 2000 and U.S. Rep. Michael Ferguson went to work to try to dump the stuff on someone else’s district. The Defense National Stockpile Center agreed to consolidate the Hillsborough and three other dumps and stick them somewhere else. In a quiet search, the agency selected Nevada without its government ever being notified that the state was under consideration ("Public notice,” March 23, 2006). In the midst of that site search, U.S. Rep. Jim Gibbons of Nevada, now governor, released an article calling the dangers of mercury overstated.

In response to the plan, the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) last September won approval from the Nevada Environmental Commission for new authority under to police mercury shipments and storage for packaging, leakage, suppression measures in the event of fire, and other steps ("Poisonous materials stored here,” Sept. 14).

DCNR spokesperson Dante Pistone said Tuesday, “We were told the shipments would start in April, but we understand now that they’ve been delayed.”

New Jersey reports say shipments to Nevada will begin this summer, with no exact date cited. Five truckloads a day for 39 days will be shipped out of Hillsborough. When the township’s dump site is empty, it will be closed and employees offered early retirement.