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Trial Over Pawtucket Mercury Spill Opens

PROVIDENCE - A criminal trial against a Houston-based gas company for its role in a 2004 mercury spill in Pawtucket opened yesterday in U.S. District Court, with testimony from the maintenance worker who discovered the spill.

David Gendron testified that the former Southern Union facility on Tidewater Street had been used as a storage site for the company even though it was unmanned and had fallen into disrepair over the decades, with homeless people living in some buildings while many others were heavily vandalized. Southern Union Co. is charged with two counts of illegally storing mercury, a highly toxic metal that attacks the central nervous system, and one count of failing to notify authorities when vandals apparently broke into the facility and dumped the toxin on the property and the nearby Lawn Terrace Apartments.

Discovery of the contamination at the apartment complex forced a temporary closure that displaced 147 residents while Southern Union undertook a massive clean-up, at the cost of $6.6 million.

On Oct. 19, 2004, Gendron, who now works for National Grid (the utilities company that took over Southern Union's New England holdings in 2006), said that he was clearing brush at 91 Tidewater St., an expansive property described during the trial as larger than two football fields.

Gendron noticed that one of the doors on a building used for storing obsolete equipment had been kicked in and the lock shattered. He saw "quart-sized" droplets and puddles nearly 8 inches in diameter on the ground around the entrance. Elsewhere he found "nickel and dime-sized" silver droplets. He recognized the silvery liquid as mercury, and immediately called a supervisor, who instructed him not to enter the building until department heads arrived. Gendron testified that in the hours after the spill was discovered, only employees of Southern Union and the environmental remediation company it hired, Clean Harbors, were on site.

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