Officials tell Mancos residents mine poses no risk

An EPA-designated superfund technical assessment and response team checks for mercury vapor Oct. 29 at the unpermitted Red Arrow milling site outside of Mancos. Enlargephoto

Courtesy photo

An EPA-designated superfund technical assessment and response team checks for mercury vapor Oct. 29 at the unpermitted Red Arrow milling site outside of Mancos.

Representatives from state and federal agencies informed residents at a Mancos town hall meeting Tuesday that the mercury and arsenic contamination at the Red Arrow Mill has been contained and no major immediate health risks exist.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety have spent the past few months consolidating and safely storing soil and liquids that were or may have been contaminated by mercury and arsenic at or near the illegal gold mill.

"No longer is this mercury or arsenic contributing to a health effect," said Richard Graham, an EPA toxicologist.

Graham was also confident the excavations at the Mill, Western Excelsior and a nearby pasture prevented the contaminants from leaching into the ground water.

According to an Environmental Protection Agency report released Monday, Dec. 9, there are no elevated concentrations of mercury vapor; three soil samples had above-average or excessive mercury levels; and nearly a quarter of soil samples exceeded arsenic levels.

"The results of air monitoring indicated no elevated concentrations of mercury vapor present escaping from the units of the storage facility to the west of the site or the septic system on the site," wrote project leader Elliott Petri of Weston Solutions Inc.

Weston Solutions is an EPA-designated superfund technical assessment and response team.

The soil and tailings stored at the mill site on Grand Avenue in Mancos will not be moved until it can be determined if one of the businesses involved in the mill can be made to pay for further cleanup efforts.

DRMS has already spent almost its entire emergency fund to clean up the site.

In the spring, the tailings may be moved to the Red Arrow Mine site and stored in a specialized container that will prevent leaching of the harmful heavy metals, Steve Renner, a representative of DRMS said. If moved to the mine the tailings would be stored in a container that will never decompose. That container would be partially buried and turned into a functional landform. The tailings could also be stored at a hazardous waste-landfill in a container that would also prevent further pollution, he said.

Residents at the meeting expressed concerns for the future of the site and health effects that the mercury may have had on the community before the mill was shut down.

Town Trustee Queenie Barz expressed frustration that the tailings will be left at the milling site for several months because it creates an eye sore and makes the property unusable to the owner, Boyd Sanders

"I think the residents deserve better, I think Mr. Sanders deserves better," she said.

Several citizens questioned the health effects that the mercury might have had on residents in the area and the workers before the mine was shut down in April.

The on-scene coordinator for the EPA, Craig Myers, said it would be very hard to make conclusive statements on the health effects the mercury or arsenic might have had while the mine was operating. But based on the current levels of contaminants, the impact on area residents should have been very minor, he said.

Graham, the toxicologist, strongly encouraged any former mill workers to visit a physician for testing based on the unsafe and unprofessional system of capturing mercury the mill used.

Tom Simmons, a representative of the state, will be working on another report due out in the spring on the health effects of the mercury and arsenic pollution. This report will be similar to a peer review of the work DRMS and the EPA have already done.

Mary Shinn can be reached at mshinn@cortezjournal.com or on twitter @maryshinn.