PCC Misleads the Public About the Mercury Spill
The Bridge recently reported on an incident that occurred last year at Sylvania’s HT building that PCC representatives described as a “small spill” of a fluid that contained mercury. Former Facilities Management Services (FMS) Maintenance Project Manager Steven Borcherding calls this misleading, at best. The Bridge contacted FMS on October 29 about the information it received from Borcherding, but as of the November 6 press time it had received no response.
According to Borcherding, a 20-year commercial building maintenance veteran, the “small spill of fluid” discovered in the Health Technology (HT) building at PCC Sylvania had an 8’x10’ footprint. At the time of its discovery, the remaining fluid was a quarter of that size. The other ¾ of the footprint was a crystalline, chemical residue that Borcherding called an “evaporate”.
The Apex Labs analysis of the remaining fluid revealed a mercury concentration thousands of times higher than the federally acceptable threshold. No test of the evaporate was done, but it can be assumed that one of the constituents of the residue was mercury. What is known and agreed upon is that the spill occurred in a non-public space of HT. What Borcherding revealed to The Bridge is that the “non-public space” where the spill occurred is known as the Main Air Plenum. Plenums, in HVAC systems, are air collection boxes where fresh air (on the supply side) is heated or cooled to be circulated throughout a building. “Used” air on the return side passes through a filter to the supply plenum for another round of heating or cooling.
Borcherding called HT’s Main Air Plenum a “wind tunnel” with winds reaching 25-30 mph. Wind blowing over the surface of water affects evaporation through a positive feedback loop. What this means is that as wind blows airborne water molecules away from water’s surface, local humidity is reduced and vapor pressure is changed. Both conditions create an ideal situation for accelerated evaporation to continue while the wind blows. While the spill’s evaporation rate is unknown, its occurrence indicates at least two possibilities: whatever was in the solution may have been airborne; and the contaminated air may have been distributed to the Child Development Center, the labs, and other areas serviced by that ventilation system.
Whether mercury was airborne remains speculative because of another deficiency revealed by Borcherding: the malfunctioning air filtration system. He stated that filters within the main air filtration system had not been replaced in three years. During this period, numerous incidences of excess particle load to another filtration unit known as the dust shaker clogged the filters in the main air system which triggered a fail-safe response that compromised the entire system. To prevent damage to the intake fans, when the filters in the main air filtration system are completely occluded a mechanism will blow out the filters and their particle load. Particles the dust shaker was supposed to capture were then able to enter the main air system. Moreover, a malfunction of parts of the ventilation system known as dampers contributed to the recirculation of the unfiltered air instead of exhausting it as it should have.
An internal audit obtained by The Bridge reveals that the “deficiency in the HVAC system and infrastructure within the HT” was known as far back as September 2012. The Sylvania Campus Management response to the concerns that chemical odors were present in HT was that they “will consult with applicable PCC departments to help ensure that any construction activities planned to be taken in the HT building at Sylvania to address root causes for the odor issues outlined above will not duplicate any efforts or compromise the construction work the Bond Program has planned to perform in the HT building.”
Fast forward to the present to see that those issues were not corrected. As recently as February of this year, 137 lbs. of mercury were removed from the pipes inside of HT, a corrective action for which Borcherding claims PCC had no policy or protocols in place for the plumbers dealing with the leaks in the system.
Another bond measure is on the ballot that seeks to renovate the existing HT building. The 2017 bond measure is intended to upgrade the aging infrastructure of HT, but the issues of mercury remediation and amalgam separators are still unclear. How the floor at the epicenter of the spill was treated is still undisclosed. Moreover, if the bond measure to finance the Dental Clinic’s transition from Sylvania to a new location downtown passes, there’s no indication what will happen with the amalgam separator that was replaced or whether maintenance protocols will be amended to avoid a repeat of this incident.