EDITORIAL: Big Stink at the County Courthouse, Part One

HERRON Independent Environmental Consulting firm has been providing customized services geared towards protecting our Clients interests. Having experience since 1976 within the inspection industry, our firm is without ‘any’ regulatory citations, Client notifications of dissatisfaction of services, and we have completed ‘all’ assignments.

— From the HERRON Enterprises USA website

From what I understand about the situation, the gas known as ‘hydrogen sulfide’ has an odor like rotten eggs.

Recent scientific testing at the Archuleta County Courthouse has found the air inside the building to be blessedly free of hydrogen sulfide dangers, and also free of other air-borne dangers known to cause respiratory illness. We are told that, according to preliminary reports provided to the Board of County Commissioners, a variety of tests by environmental testing company HERRON Enterprises USA — tests for toxins, fungi, bacteria, legionella, and hydrogen sulfide — all came back within acceptable ranges.

For whatever reasons, a wide range of intelligent adults have apparently come to the conclusion that HERRON Enterprises’ scientific testing is either invalid or incomplete. That conclusion apparently also applies to the scientific air quality testing done by A.G. Wassenaar on behalf of the 6th Judicial district. Specifically, the initial tests by the Judicial Department’s contractor also found no hydrogen sulfide (H2S).

Many intelligent adults still believe that something life-threatening — but as yet unidentified or confirmed — lurks within the walls of the Courthouse.  Those intelligent adults include County Sheriff Rich Valdez, Undersheriff Tonya Hamilton, Chief Judge Jeffrey Wilson, County Coroner Dan Keuning, and County Detention Center medical officer Jim Pruitt.

A four-page letter from Jeffrey Wilson, Chief Judge for the 6th Judicial District, dated September 26, mentions numerous mysterious details about illnesses and symptoms suffered by employees in the Courthouse over the past two years since the BOCC and Sheriff decided to abandon the existing jail. The presumed culprit behind these mysterious symptoms is hydrogen sulfide, even though scientific testing over the past couple of weeks has found no evidence of dangerous pollution.

From Judge Wilson’s letter:

“After the sheriff’s office, probation department and courts evacuated the building, both Archuleta County and the Judicial Department contracted for testing of air quality in the building, The testing contracted for the county found acceptable air quality. The initial air quality testing conducted on behalf of the Judicial Department did not find any measurable levels of H2S, but the contractor conducting the tests was able to smell the odor of sulfur in the court’s hearing room and in the sheriff’s office…

“H2S and other noxious gases are released by sulfur hot springs. The courthouse and sheriff’s office sit above and next to geothermal pools which, according to the [Pagosa Fire Protection District] reports, are producing H2S. Noxious gases, including H2S that infiltrate buildings, are insidious in that the gases are not expelled from the earth at a steady rate. Instead, the earth “burps” these gases at random intervals and releases varying concentrations of these gases…

“For that reason, a single day or two of testing is not [conclusive]…”

Judge Wilson’s letter additionally mentions employees fainting, evidence of H2S found on the roof of the Courthouse by the Pagosa Fire Protection District, and elevated levels of carbon monoxide indicated in blood tests submitted by Sheriff Valdez and Undersheriff Tonya Hamilton.

As many of our readers know, the Archuleta County Courthouse has been located on the corner of San Juan Street and Pagosa Street (aka the sharp curve in Highway 160) since 1929. The geothermal pools located near the courthouse have been serving customers since at least 1891. Perhaps County employees have been fainting and filing worker’s comp claims regularly since 1929. I cannot say.  And it’s possible that no one, between 1929 and 2017, had ever before smelled the odor of sulfur in the court’s hearing room. Again, I cannot say.

But it has to feel awkward for the Sheriff, the Chief Judge and other employees of the ‘judicial system’ to be raising these concerns about air quality, just three weeks before the November ballots are scheduled to get mailed out to Archuleta County voters. That ballot will ask voters to approve up to $27 million in new County debt… to build new ‘justice system’ buildings.

To quote the ballot language, the debt would be:

“… revenue bonds or other financial obligations issued solely for the purpose of constructing, maintaining improving and equipping justice system capital improvements, to include but not be limited to a new detention center and new Sheriff’s offices…”

We are listening here to County Commissioner Michael Whiting at an impromptu press conference last Tuesday, that included myself and Pagosa Springs SUN reporter Randi Pierce:

“I didn’t get a copy of Judge Wilson’s letter directly — it was forwarded to me by Bentley [County Administrator Bentley Henderson].  And at almost the same time, I got a call from a reporter from the Durango Herald…”

The 6th Judicial District had also emailed the judge’s letter to the Pagosa Springs SUN, and to the Daily Post.  You can download that letter here.  As a reporter, I greatly appreciate the effort by a government agency to inform the press.

During the regular BOCC meeting, concluded just prior to our press conference, Commissioner Whiting had questioned the validity of some of Judge Wilson’s claims.

“It’s unfortunate that there are several inaccuracies in that letter, that the Judge bases his decision on. I know Judge Wilson by his reputation, and I find it really difficult to believe that he would intentionally make statements that he knew were not factually accurate. So I can only assume that the facts provided to him were inaccurate and that he assumed the source was reliable… As I said, there are several inaccuracies in his letter that go directly to his concerns and his conclusions…”

Read Part Two…

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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.