The Department of Defense will decide within the next month where to store the nation's entire stockpile of mercury. And Tooele, Utah, is still in the running.

In a final environmental impact statement released recently, the Utah Industrial Depot, formerly part of the adjacent Tooele Army Depot, is among the five finalists for storing 4,890 tons of mercury that is now in warehouses at three Department of Energy sites — New Haven, Ind.; Somerville, N.J.; and Warren, Ohio.

The Defense National Stockpile Center (DNSC), a Defense Department agency charged with storing the materials for national emergencies such as war, wants to consolidate the mercury at one location to make it easier to manage.

Besides the three existing sites, the agency has added two to the list — Utah Industrial Depot and Nevada's Hawthorne Army Depot. (A site in New York was at one time considered but later taken off the list after officials there requested it be withdrawn.)

Tooele County residents, who attended an August public hearing on the federal government's proposal, had mixed feelings about it.

One the one hand some people weren't convinced mercury was all that bad.

On its face, pure elemental mercury has been bought and sold internationally for use in electrical switches, fluorescent lighting, dental fillings and industrial processing. For more than 50 years, the government has been safely storing mercury in 128,662 steel flasks inside 30-gallon steel drums for extra protection.

It is when mercury vaporizes into the environment that could cause a human health risk. And that has prompted others to be concerned.

"There is no benefit in having it here," said Jason Groenewold of Families Against Incinerator Risk. "It's an unnecessary risk that we'll be stuck with indefinitely and frankly, for the two jobs it would generate, we could do a lot better."

The issue was brought to the forefront because mercury is no longer bought and sold on the open market. In 1994, the Environmental Protection Agency raised concerns that too much mercury already had been released to the global environment.

The DNSC then looked at three possibilities for long-term handling of the mercury stockpile: keeping it where it is now stored; moving it all to one central location; selling it.

The final environmental study has concluded that all three options would have negligible environmental impacts. However, the federal government prefers to consolidate storage because "it is the best way to meet its objectives" of simplifying storage.

Costs of storing it over 40 years at one of the six sites are within 2 percent of each other — about $29 million at Warren Depot, Ohio to $29.5 million at Utah Industrial Depot, Tooele. For instance, it would be cheaper to send mercury to a facility that already has mercury stored there. It would be more expensive to transport all the 128,662 flasks to Tooele.

The cost estimates do not include security, which is minimal at the Utah Industrial Depot, compared to the existing Army depots where mercury is already stored.

It has prompted some skepticism of the report.

"It appears they have gone out of their way to make Utah look like a much better location by not accounting for the true costs of storing it here, which has us concerned that they are trying to pave the way for dumping it here indefinitely," Groenewold said.

Federal regulators say a final announcement is forthcoming.

"After the final (mercury management environmental impact statement) has been available for public review for a minimum of 30 days, a record of decision will be published that explains the basis for selection of the alternative that will be implemented," the report stated.

The final environmental impact statement is available online at www.mercuryeis.com.


E-mail: donna@desnews.com