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The Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to reimburse the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission nearly $13,000 for the cost it incurred to clean up a mercury spill following a double-fatality wreck on one of its parking lots in May 2016.

The driver of the vehicle, Dakota Avants, of Pine Bluff, was sentenced last month in Hot Spring County Circuit Court to 20 years in prison on each of two counts of second-degree murder, to run consecutively for a total of 40 years, for the deaths of his two passengers.

Avants, according to an amended criminal information filed with the circuit court on Feb. 1, was fleeing from a Hot Spring County deputy when he crashed a 2009 Mitsubishi Galant in a parking lot owned by the ad commission on Malvern Avenue.

According to a court document The Sentinel-Record obtained in August 2016, Avants was a suspect in a burglary in Cleveland County that involved the theft of 200 pounds of elemental mercury from the son of a deceased dentist.

The mercury was packaged in 10 pint-size to quart-size jars with a cork lid, and weighed around 200 pounds, the affidavit said.

Avants, when interviewed by a Cleveland County Sheriff's Department investigator at the Jefferson County Detention Center in Pine Bluff on July 3, 2016, denied having anything to do with the burglary involving the mercury, according to the affidavit obtained last summer. He claimed the mercury was already in the Galant when the two fatality victims and a third person arrived to pick him up the morning of May 16.

Avants was initially charged in Hot Spring County with two counts of first-degree murder after the two passengers in the vehicle, Kersha L. Arrington, 32, and Ashley Nicole Whittington, 30, both of Pine Bluff, each died as the result of their injuries, and was set to stand trial this week. He pleaded guilty to the lesser felony under a plea agreement on Jan. 26, along with $150 in court costs and a $2,500 fine.

The amended affidavit filed in Hot Spring County on Feb. 1 said Avants admitted fleeing because his driver's license was suspended, and because he was trying to impress Arrington and Whittington. He estimated he was traveling at around 130 mph when he wrecked the car.

After developing Avants as a suspect in the burglary in Cleveland County, along with three other Pine Bluff men, the affidavit obtained last summer said the investigator learned on May 24, 2016, that Avants had been involved in a wreck in Hot Springs, and that some of the liquid mercury may have been in the vehicle.

He contacted the Hot Springs Fire Department in reference to their response to the scene of the wreck, and received two incident reports, one of which showed that liquid mercury was "observed scattered all over the ground and parking lot area."

The investigator later contacted the special agent for the Arkansas State Police who was in charge of the Hot Springs investigation to advise him that state police officers may have been contaminated with liquid mercury while working the scene of the wreck, and that there was "possible liquid mercury spilled in the vehicle that Avants was driving the night of the accident."

The special agent later told the investigator that he had obtained a search warrant for the Galant and discovered "busted containers containing liquid mercury in the vehicle. The vehicle was then quarantined."

The affidavit also notes that another person mentioned in connection with the burglary "later got very sick" from the mercury. When contacted by the investigator, he stated "that stuff has ruined his life," referring to the mercury.

The ad commission hired Waste Services Inc. of Little Rock to clean up the spill, at a cost of $12,938.29. Regions donated the parking lot, located at the corner of Malvern Avenue and Church Street, to the ad commission in April 2016. The lot previously served as an overflow lot for Regions' main branch.

Steve Arrison, CEO of Visit Hot Springs, the convention and visitors bureau operated by the ad commission, initially called in the Hot Springs Fire Department when the mercury was first discovered, and later hired the environmental company to dispose of the toxic metal.

The award comes out of the EPA's Local Governments Reimbursement Program, which according to the EPA provides a "safety net" of up to $25,000 per incident to local governments that do not have the funds available to pay for cleaning up hazardous substances.

Arrison said Bo Robertson, director of the Garland County Department of Emergency Management, was instrumental in getting the EPA reimbursement.

Gilberto Irizarry, director of the Preparedness and Response Operations Division of the Office of Emergency Management, notified Arrison in writing on Feb. 7 that the reimbursement would be made within 30 to 60 days.

Local on 02/18/2017

Print Headline: City to get reimbursed for mercury cleanup

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