The United States has sued three companies for $6.5 million to recover the costs of cleaning up mercury contamination at an EPA Superfund site in Rye Brook.
The companies shipped 3,390 pounds of scrap mercury to the Port Refinery Co., from 1976 to 1982, according to the lawsuit filed on Aug. 16 in federal court in White Plains.
Port Refinery operated out of a makeshift laboratory in a garage behind a house at 55 Hillandale Road. It was owned by Edmund Barbera, a chemist who recovered the mercury and sold it for dental fillings. He died in 1995.
The EPA classifies mercury as a hazardous substance. In significant concentrations it can cause severe neurological and behavioral disorders. It is used commercially in electronic applications and to manufacture industrial chemicals.
The lawsuit names Monroe Iron & Metal Co. of Jackson, Mississippi; Ocanna Inc., formerly Annadale Scrap Co., of Northbrook, Illinois; and Southern Natural Gas Co. of Houston. Acting U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim filed the case on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency.
The backyard refinery was discovered in 1991 and was designated as a Superfund site. Port Refinery had been operating there for about 20 years.
The 0.7-acre property included a two-story garage with basement, a two-story house, a swimming pool, cabana and a shed. The site is surrounded by houses and condominiums and is a quarter-of-a-mile from Blind Brook High School.
The government spent $6.4 million in the 1990s to demolish the garage and cabana and to remove 6,500 tons of contaminated soil and debris.
In 2004, more contamination was found in a rock pile along a path between the Arbors condominiums and the high school. About a ton of soil was removed and officials tested more soil, the air, drainage systems and groundwater.
In one place, according to a 2004 EPA bulletin, the soil contained mercury at 1,300 parts per million, or 130 times a government standard.
Investigators found two below-ground vaults that contained empty bottles, cylinders and laboratory containers used for shipping and handling mercury. One vault appeared to be a former hand-dug well, next to a patio at the Hillandale house, and the other a former septic tank, in front of the house.
Significant concentrations of mercury were also found in the groundwater, three ponds and patches of soil around the Arbors.
The EPA removed 9,300 tons of soil, took out the vaults, demolished the house, compensated the current owner of the house, cleaned underground pipes and installed air and water filtration systems. The work cost more than $7 million.
The three companies were sued to recover costs from the first cleanup in the 1990s. The old consent decree does not prevent the government from suing again to recover costs incurred after 1998.
The government previously sued seven other parties for the second cleanup and it has recovered $460,250.
The new lawsuit accuses Monroe, Ocanna and Southern of violating the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980.