A naturopathic physician believes Mancos residents should undergo health assessments to test for volatile mercury airborne exposure as a result of an illegal gold mine.
“Mercury is a very serious neurotoxin and carcinogen,” said Lyn Patrick, ND.
Patrick was one of about 10 concerned citizens to address Mancos town officials Monday, Sept. 30, during a Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety presentation. Mining officials were on hand to deliver an update on the now-closed Red Arrow gold mine operation outside of town.
“We are here to catch everyone up on the regulatory process,” the mining agency’s director Loretta Pineda told some three-dozen residents in attendance.
During the 70-minute Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety slideshow exposition, which included a question-and-answer session, Patrick gasped when a photo of the Red Arrow operations ventilation system appeared on the screen. The rudimentary system included a large metal bucket with lead plumber’s pipe to catch escaping mercury fumes.
“I’m worried we were all seriously exposed to these vapors from this Mickey Mouse turned upside down vent hood,” Patrick said. “We need funding for health assessments.”
Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety officials closed the Red Arrow gold mine some nine miles northeast of Mancos along with a milling operation just outside of town limits on Grand Avenue in June.
Mine operator Craig Luikko was subsequently fined $335,000 for six violations, including operating a mine without a permit.
Mancos resident Travis Custer told officials that he is concerned that ecological justice will not be served in the matter. He fears some residents, especially non-English speaking citizens, will be left in the dark.
“It’s important not to push people to the wayside,” he said. “That’s unacceptable, and it’s something the board should take seriously.”
Mancos Mayor Rachel Simbeck told residents that town officials couldn’t solve all of the problems in a single night, and the town would work to ensure all residents were properly informed of potential health risks.
“We are all very concerned,” she said.
Paul Schmitz, one of two Hesperus residents to make a public statement, said he fears officials could be overlooking forensic criminal actions as a result of the illegal mine. He argued the Colorado Bureau of Investigations or the Federal Bureau of Investigations should be assigned to the case.
“We’re not getting the whole picture,” he claimed. “Don’t underestimate how dangerous this is.”
Pineda tried to reassure residents, saying Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety officials do not believe the unpermitted milling operation poses any potential health risks despite groundwater about 6 feet below contaminated mill tailings.
“We issued a cease-and-desist order, and there’s no mining activity ongoing,” Pineda said. “We’re sure there are no public safety concerns for Mancos.”
Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety official Steve Renner told residents that a certified Environmental Protection Agency lab confirmed that preliminary samples contained both mercury and arsenic. Officials estimate more than 1,300 cubic yards of solid materials and more than 2,500 gallons of liquid ingredients were contaminated and will need to be removed to a hazardous material landfill or buried onsite.
“We will be working closely with EPA officials in coming weeks to do more precise sampling,” Renner said.
Because of the federal government shutdown, some 16,000 EPA employees have been whittled down to about 1,000, according to a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet.
Montezuma County Commissioner Larry Don Suckla said local officials are committed to a speedy cleanup effort, but added there were potential funding concerns.
“Nobody wants to pay for this,” he said. “We need our federal agencies to help us, and get this stuff out of our community.”
The county commission asked if Red Arrow had applied for a permit to mill at the Mancos site would it have been allowed.
“It would not be approved,” responded Kate Pickford, a DRMS environmental specialist. “Using mercury in the milling process is how Third World countries do it, not in this country.”