Mercury Spill Forces out Williamsburg, Va., City Council

Spill of toxic chemical believed to be deliberate; can cause respiratory, neurological damage


WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (AP) - The discovery of mercury in city council chambers has forced members to move their meetings while federal environmental officials clean up what police consider a deliberate spill of the toxic chemical.

Mercury beads were found Monday on the council members' chairs and on the floor nearby. Exposure to mercury vapors can cause neurological and respiratory problems.

Testing done before the clean-up started revealed more than 100 times more mercury vapor in the air in the room than is considered acceptable, said Bob Guarni, one of two Environmental Protection Agency on-scene coordinators.

Deputy Police Chief Dave Sloggie said investigators believe a disgruntled person attempted to send a message and investigators are still trying to figure out what that message is. The FBI is also involved in the investigation.

"If it's somebody pulling a prank, it's an incredible waste of people's time and money," Councilman Paul Freiling said. "If it's somebody trying to do something malicious, I can't imagine what their motivation is because there are so many productive and constructive ways to address issues to council."

The person responsible could be charged with burglary, destruction of property or possibly possession of a weapon of terrorism, a state law introduced after 2001 terrorism attacks, said Williamsburg-James City County Commonwealth's Attorney Mike McGinty.

The EPA has budgeted $250,000 for the clean-up effort, Williamsburg Fire Chief T.K. Weiler told the council Thursday.

"I would hope they don't reach that ceiling," Weiler said. "On the other hand, we're not paying for it."

City officials declared a local emergency Monday, enabling the city to receive federal funds to cover the expense.

The EPA's Guarni said the most recent testing, conducted Wednesday night, showed that the air met the standard considered normal and acceptable - one microgram of mercury vapor per meter cubed of air. Anything in the range of one microgram or less is considered a safe level, Guarni said.

A contractor hired by the EPA used a special vacuum cleaner with a filter that traps mercury vapor to remove all visible traces of the chemical. The contaminated chairs and several hundred feet of carpet at the front of the room have also been disposed of.