The U.S. is sitting on a slippery stockpile of toxic material that has nothing to do with the nuclear power industry: thousands of tons of mercury. The question remains now of where to store it.

The heavy metal, found in everything from old thermometers to power plant emissions, has been linked to neurological damage, birth defects and other health concerns.

Although dedicated mercury mining stopped in the U.S. in 1990, the storage reserves have continued to grow as demand for manufacturing and other uses have dropped off. By 1994, sales from the U.S. mercury stockpile were suspended. A 2003 report [pdf] by state and federal environmental agencies found that “there is not a national plan or a consensus on who should be storing excess elemental mercury.”

Some of the mercury excesses have been shipped overseas to countries that have more lax disposal laws, according to the Associated Press. But the 2008 Mercury Export Ban Act charged the Department of Energy (DoE) with finding a domestic destination for long-term storage of the mined metal. After the DoE announced a shortlist of possible storage sites, opposition has been quickly rising.

Colorado, one of the seven states under consideration, has seen protest from locals and politicians alike, including Gov. Bill Ritter, who said: “The risks to ground and surface water are too great. The risks to our air quality are too great.”

The other states on the list are Idaho, Missouri, Nevada, South Carolina, Texas and Washington. Kansas City has already passed a resolution to oppose mercury storage at a local energy plant, according to the Kansas City Star.

Despite the challenges of the search for a storage location, the DoE is looking at the silver lining. “We see this as an opportunity to help reduce the export and transportation of mercury,” Frank Marcinowski of the DoE’s environmental management office told the AP. 

The DoE is expected to issue an environmental impact statement for public comment in the coming months.

Image courtesy of bionerd via Wikimedia Commons