A volunteer task force has vowed to keep pressure on state and federal agencies until health and environmental concerns stemming from the Red Arrow milling operation are properly addressed.
The Mancos Environmental Assessment Group told town officials last week they want to ensure that neither Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety nor U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials drop the ball.
“We aren’t looking to take any executive action,” volunteer Jim Law told town trustees. “We want to ask questions on behalf of the town, and the result of our inquiries would be to help you guys.”
“We need to get answers to what extent the EPA will be involved,” he continued. “We need that soon.”
Town Trustee Todd Kearns applauded the community-minded initiative, saying the town could use the residents’ assistance.
“We’re downwind,” he said. “This is a great Mancos-centered effort.”
Concerned the task force would duplicate efforts, Town Administrator Andrea Phillips met with the task force on Thursday, Oct. 24. She told the volunteers that DRMS and EPA officials have been forced to withhold information since the Red Arrow Gold Mine has pending legal receivership issues.
“There’s still a lot we don’t know,” she said.
Volunteer Travis Custer wants greater transparency on the potential health and environmental impacts. He argued the EPA should be conducting swab tests to ensure nearby homes were not contaminated with mercury poisoning.
“It’s really scary to know that pounds and pounds of vaporized mercury were emitted from the milling site,” he said. “This is an urgent matter that affects the entire community.”
Red Arrow milling operations, located on Grand Avenue just outside of town limits, reportedly started last spring and continued for at least six months. A rudimentary exhaust system, which included a tin bucket turned upside down, was used to collect mercury vapors at the illegal gold mill.
Town Trustee Queenie Barz supported a coordinated effort between the task force and Phillips, but cautioned that any misinformation could cause pandemonium.
“This is already worrisome and scary,” she said.
Law said he has discovered at least one, perhaps two, 1,000-gallon septic tanks at the mill site location. He’s concerned contaminated water could be leaching into the ground.
“A crime has been committed here,” he said.
Just a few blocks away at the town’s water-treatment facility, Phillips said town officials don’t have the capabilities to test for mercury before the water is subsequently released into the Mancos River.
DRMS officials were slated to start preliminary remediation efforts this week at the milling site.
Other concerns raised by the Mancos Environmental Assessment Group include health concerns for former mill employees, a lack of response from U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton of Cortez and whether Montezuma County could be held liable for a lack of oversight at the unpermitted milling operation.
“We’re going to move forward with what we’re doing,” Custer said.
DRMS officials closed the Red Arrow gold mine some nine miles northeast of Mancos along with the milling operation in June. Mine operator Craig Luikko was subsequently fined $335,000 for six violations, including operating a mine without a permit.
Preliminary sampling of the mill site revealed higher than acceptable levels of mercury and naturally occurring arsenic. DRMS officials maintain the milling site does not present any risk to public health.