Spilled mercury drops cost homeowner $850

Langley Township fire department attends after thermometer breaks, then calls in contractor.

Langley Township fire chief Stephen Gamble is defending his department’s decision to send an $850 clean-up bill to a home owner whose thermometer broke, causing a tiny amount of mercury to leak.

On April 4, 2012,  a mother of two, who is fairly new to the country, called 911 after a she accidentally broke a thermometer. A few drops of mercury spilled out onto her kitchen floor.

Gamble said the fire department was dispatched to a “hazmat” call at a residential home in Willoughby.

“Our crew met the resident and her children outside after the 911 operator had told them to evacuate the home,” said Gamble.

He claims his firefighters went into the home and saw that she had attempted to clean up the mercury, further spreading it. Gamble said his firefighters followed protocol and did the right thing by calling in a private company they use to do hazmat clean ups.

The private company is based in Richmond. It billed for six hours of travel time. Gamble said this is because of the time it takes to go get their equipment, drive out on “off duty” time and put on hazmat suits. They also had to put in a costly disposal bill for the mercury. Normally, hazmat clean-up bills go right to a company but because this was a homeowner situation, the fire department took on the bill, with an agreement that the homeowner  would pay it, he said.

Gamble said the fire department doesn’t have the equipment or the training to handle hazardous material situations, even something as simple as a drop of mercury.

“If I ordered crews to clean it up that would be against WorkSafe BC regulations,” Gamble said.

He said his crew couldn’t have just turned around and left it either.

“We don’t have the luxury of throwing it away or ignoring the call and leaving it. The public would expect us to dispose of it safely and if we left it and someone got mercury poisoning that would make our taxpayers liable,” Gamble said.

While firefighters are trained to recognize and assess hazardous material situations and to do perimeter protection, they aren’t trained to attend. In the cases of meth labs, it is the RCMP and private contractors they call in to deal with that, he said.

“We provide support and outside protection and will spray down a person if they have been contaminated,” Gamble said.

He said the original bill the private company provided was quite high.

Gamble said the private contractor, his department and the home wner sat down and agreed to cut the bill in half to $850. The homeowner was paying that in monthly installments to the fire department.

“But then they stopped paying,” said Gamble. “I don’t know the reason why.”

If the bill is not paid, it will be added to their property taxes.

The federal ministry of environment provides a step-by-step procedure for homeowners to follow on how to clean up “small mercury spills.”

It explains that mercury should be collected and sealed in a tightly sealed container, and the local municipal waste department contacted for further disposal instructions.

It is only with “big spills” that a private company should be called in. Also the ministry recommends calling the poison control centre for further information, if needed.

The Times attempted to contact the homeowner, but was unable to.

The ministry of environment website is located at ec.gc.ca.