HOUSTON (AP) — An attorney for a 19-year-old man accused stealing mercury and spilling it at several locations in Houston tried Wednesday to downplay the danger that the public faced from exposure to the liquid metal.
During a brief court appearance by Christopher Lee Melder, his attorney, Patrick Ruzzo, told a judge that the type of mercury his client is accused of stealing is not a substance that could immediately cause significant harm to people.
“My understanding is, it’s not lethal unless you have exposure to it over a long period of time, kind of like cigarettes,” Ruzzo told reporters after the court hearing.
Mercury is a heavy, silvery naturally occurring liquid used in such things as thermometers and batteries. It’s a potent neurotoxin, but health effects depend on how much mercury a person is exposed to, how long they’re exposed, and their age. Small children are most vulnerable.
Melder is accused of stealing the mercury from an abandoned business and spilling it inside and near several businesses. Officials say he spilled less than a pint of mercury and there is a very low health risk for the public. Dozens of people had to be decontaminated over the weekend due to possible exposure, and several businesses were closed for cleanup.
Melder is charged with burglary and the illegal disposal of hazardous waste.
In response to Ruzzo’s arguments, state District Judge Chuck Silverman raised Melder’s bonds from $5,000 to $50,000.
The judge also set a $100,000 bond for a prior drug charge that Melder had received a form a probation to resolve. Prosecutors said Melder had failed to report to his probation officer for several months.
Ruzzo said his client is indigent and can’t afford to pay his bonds.
The FBI’s Houston office has said it believes the mercury spill was not intentional and that Melder had no nefarious intent.
Ruzzo declined to comment when asked if Melder knew he was handling mercury, or if the spill was an accident.
Authorities allege Melder stole about 11 pounds (5 kilograms) of the liquid metal from Geochem Laboratories Inc. on Houston’s west side on Friday.
He then went to a Walmart and Shell gas station about half a mile from the abandoned business and tried selling small amounts of the mercury for $20 each, according to prosecutors. Two people bought the mercury and authorities are trying to track them down.
Melder spilled the mercury onto the pavement when he played with it with his hands and didn’t try to clean it up.
Mercury was found inside and outside the Walmart and outside the gas station, a nearby Sonic-Drive-In and a convenience store. Officials believe people unknowingly stepped on the mercury and spread it. The spills weren’t detected at these businesses until Sunday.
Melder is also accused of spilling about five ounces of mercury at around 2:30 a.m. Saturday inside the emergency room of a hospital in the northern Houston suburb of Spring. Authorities say Melder was getting treated for a lacerated finger when the mercury fell out of his pocket and backpack.
The Harris County Sheriff’s Office said deputies were unable to identify sufficient probable cause to file criminal charges against Melder at the time of the hospital spill.
Melder’s next court hearing is set for Feb. 13.
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70