EDITORIAL: Wheels of Justice… or Justice on Wheels? Part Two

Read Part One

Only a few moments had passed, once I’d settled myself in the audience section at yesterday’s Archuleta Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) work session, before my friend Carl Mellberg sat down in the chair next to me and promptly handed me a copy of a letter he had submitted to the weekly Pagosa Springs SUN.

The letter, dated Monday, September 11, begins:

“When it comes to the need for a new Justice Center, it seems that it takes a catastrophic disaster with potential loss of life to move the commissioners from the indecisive complacency that seems to be their M.O. to that of actually DOING the job that they were elected to DO as our public servants.”

As we might surmise from this first sentence, Mr. Mellberg is a passionate supporter of proposed new County facilities — a new County jail and Sheriff’s Office planned for a 5-acre site in the Harman Park subdivision. The cost of the tax increase to pay for this facility: approximately $27 million.

Mr. Mellberg and I have been on the same side of a number of local political issues in recent years, and Mr. Mellberg has often served as an outspoken critic of government inefficiency and waste.  In the case of the “Justice Center,” however, we seem to be on opposite sides of the fence.

Which is not to belittle the importance of “catastrophic disasters with potential loss of life.” But whether that’s an accurate description of the Archuleta County Courthouse, in early September 2017, might be open to debate.

Mr. Mellberg continues:

“Three of our hard-working Sheriff’s deputies have been sent to the hospital for some unidentified reason that seems to be connected to the toxic air quality within the building. In addition to this mysterious phenomenon, a structural engineer who has already given an evaluation of the building, has stated that ‘if it were up to him, he would condemn the building for its extreme lack of structural integrity.’ The building is just NOT SAFE to be in.

“Our Justice Center should, of all buildings, be the most SECURE AND SAFE building in the county, for obvious reasons.”

For some reason, Mr. Mellberg had to leave yesterday’s work session prior to its conclusion, so he missed the brief discussion about the County Courthouse — the health-threatening structure mentioned in Mr. Mellberg’s letter.

Here’s that brief BOCC discussion. As you will note, the mysterious reason for the Sheriff’s evacuation from the Courthouse, and the simultaneous Judicial Department evacuation, remained unidentified during the discussion.

County Administrator Bentley Henderson:

“As you saw from that email that I sent out yesterday, the… uh… the constituent that seemed to be the most problematic, and that was causing people the most concern, was not present in the building back in December.

“I can’t imagine any reason why it would now appear in any dangerous concentrations higher than the ‘relative exposure level’ or whatever they call it. The minimum. 20 parts per million. I feel very confident that we will get a clean bill of health on the building, and hopefully everyone can get back to work.”

Mr. Bentley outlined some of the locations, outside the Courthouse, where County employees and officials are being accommodated while the BOCC awaits the completion of today’s environmental testing. Of particular interest might be the fact that the County Treasurer staff will be available at the Administration Building, 398 Lewis Street… in case you are late paying your property tax, for example.

“We should have a really good idea, I would guess by lunchtime [on Wednesday] as to the broader context of the circumstances over there [at the Courthouse.]… This will be the fourth time [we’ve done air quality testing] and I would be surprised if the circumstances have changed substantially since the last time.  And that was just this past December.”

County Treasurer Betty Diller discusses accommodations for her staff, in regards to the evacuation event at the County Courthouse. September 12, 2017 BOCC work session.

Commissioner Ronnie Maez asked about “badges” for employees; I presume he was referring to badges that can monitor exposure to certain “constituents.” Mr. Henderson stated that “the folks from A.G. Wassenaar will probably bring badges, but our guy is just going to bring his tester. And I think it’s one of those tests where the results come back instantly, if you have the right equipment. And he’s got it, because he’s done this test before. In that building. More than once.”

Commissioner Steve Wadley:

“I hope we have some answers tomorrow.”

Mr. Henderson:

“I’m sure we will. They will be in there, working, so we’ll learn something.”

According to Mr. Mellberg’s letter, three Sheriff’s deputies recently landed in the hospital, for “some unidentified reason.” A source close to the County told me that the affected officer or officers were suffering from some type of respiratory ailment. Respiratory ailments can be caused by air quality issues, but they can also result from other causes. It would appear that Sheriff Valdez pinpointed air quality issues and ordered an evacuation of his staff, without having the benefit of any scientific testing.

Making a wild guess, perhaps?

Following the BOCC work session, I asked Mr. Henderson what the suspected irritant was.

“Hydrogen sulfide,” was his uncomplicated response.

Hydrogen sulfide is a noxious — and potentially toxic — gas commonly found in sewer lines. It smells like rotten eggs. It’s also a gas commonly emitted by, of all things, hot springs. In fact, rumor has it that people have occasionally smelled hydrogen sulfide in the neighborhood of the Great Pagosa Hot Springs.

A few curious facts about hydrogen sulfide, quoted from a fact sheet published by OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration:

People can smell the “rotten egg” odor of hydrogen sulfide at low concentrations in air. However, with continuous low-level exposure, or at high concentrations, a person loses his/her ability to smell the gas even though it is still present (olfactory fatigue). This can happen very rapidly and at high concentrations, the ability to smell the gas can be lost instantaneously. Therefore, DO NOT rely on your sense of smell to indicate the continuing presence of hydrogen sulfide or to warn of hazardous concentrations…

Hydrogen sulfide is both an irritant and a chemical asphyxiant with effects on both oxygen utilization and the central nervous system. Its health effects can vary depending on the level and duration of exposure…. Low concentrations irritate the eyes, nose, throat and respiratory system (e.g., burning / tearing of eyes, cough, shortness of breath). Asthmatics may experience breathing difficulties…

Moderate concentrations can cause more severe eye and respiratory irritation (including coughing, difficulty breathing, accumulation of fluid in the lungs), headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, staggering and excitability.

I left a phone message yesterday with Undersheriff Tonya Hamilton, hoping that she might be able to shed some light on how the Sheriff’s Office made the determination that evacuation of the west wing of the Courthouse was advisable. Thus far, I’ve not received a return call.

By the end of the day today, the testing of the air quality in the County Courthouse ought to be completed, although I cannot say for sure whether the BOCC will have test results immediately in hand. Nor can I predict what the response will be to those test results,from the elected officials who maintain offices in the Courthouse. Nor can I predict the response from the Judicial Department.

Catastrophic disaster? Or an over-reaction by elected officials and their supporters, who are hoping to get a huge tax increase passed in November?

Read Part Three…


Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.