Piles of Lannigan Track surface await determination of whether their mercury levels require incineration.
Did Lannigan's distinctive blue surface contain too much mercury?
file photo by Skip Degan
Test results on samples from the University of Virginia's Lannigan Field track surfaces indicate eye-popping mercury levels as much as 33,000 times the government standards.
What the government may not know is whether such levels of the heavy metal pose any risks to runners or to the construction workers removing the surfaces in the course of the spiffy $5- to $7-million upgrade of the facility located on Copeley Road.
"Whether you believe it's toxic or not, federal standards say it needs to be incinerated," says Andy Hord, president of Precision Sports Surfaces Inc., one of the companies that unsuccessfully bid on the makeover of the once distinctively blue track.
Hord submitted three samples from the track for mercury testing. One from the original 1971 track surface, which includes three subsequent resurfacings, shows mercury levels at 100 parts per million. EPA standards for incineration, say Hord, are .003ppm.
"This stuff is FULL OF MERCURY," Hord writes in an email to UVA. "Like 33,000 times the [Resource Conservation and Recovery Act] standard."
While a 1994 surface shows negligible amounts of mercury, a sample associated with a 2004 resurfacing measured at a level of 60ppm, which is 20,000 times the standard.
The University's own testing of the track found no mercury, according to UVA spokeswoman Carol Wood. Hord contends that the section of track UVA tested came from a 2002 addition on the far side of the track that doesn't adequately reflect the facility's surfaces.
"We certainly don't want to take any chances, so this afternoon we started another round of testing," says Wood in a May 23 email to a reporter.
"The old surface has already been pulled up and is in rolls at the edge of the track," says Wood. "Barton Malow, the contractor, has been directed to leave the rolls on site until we receive the results of the new test in two to three days. The outcome of this new test will determine the exact nature of how to dispose of the material."
The EPA has little information on mercury hazards for runners– or surface removers– in track surfaces; and the few studies that have been done are contradictory, says an EPA spokesman, who says it's agency policy that his name not be used.
"We don't have any evidence that it is [hazardous]," says the anonymous EPA guy. "It's probably like lead, bound up in a chemical compound. It's not a volatile compound."
Yet he acknowledges, "We don't think it's an issue, but we don't have any evidence."
Mercury exposure comes from inhalation, ingestion, or skin absorption, says Dwight Flammia, public health toxicologist for the Virginia Department of Public Health. He's seen no cases of runners mad as hatters from mercury poisoning. "It's the exposure, not the chemical being present," says Flammia.
Just because mercury is present in material doesn't mean it will leach into a landfill, especially if it's immobilized, according to UVA's director of environmental health and safety Ralph Allen. The university is doing another test to see whether the mercury dissolves into solutions and will get into groundwater, says Allen.
"If you want to dispose of mercury, it's hazardous; if a material has mercury in it, it's not hazardous unless it fails this test," Allen explains. "We'll know Thursday whether this is leachable mercury."
Lannigan Field closed May 9 for its major overhaul, bolstered by a $5 million pledge from Amy Mitchell Griffin, Class of 1998. It's expected to reopen in time for the 2012 ACC Track and Field Championships.
The track became so popular with locals that last year the University booted them off during peak practice times so they wouldn't be mowed down by high-speed sprinters or bonked by a shot put.
Lannigan Field was a peripheral location in a fatality not linked to mercury: Morgan Harrington was seen in a parking lot there October 17, 2009, before heading to nearby Copeley Road Bridge, the last place she was seen alive.