EDITORIAL: Big Stink at the County Courthouse, Part Two

Read Part One

At the regular Archuleta Board of County Commissioners meeting on Tuesday, October 3, Sheriff Rich Valdez submitted a packet of documents to Ronnie Maez and Michael Whiting, the two commissioners in attendance that day. Some of the documents detailed the federal and state requirements that a county sheriff must follow when operating a local jail. The packet also included a letter signed by the Sheriff that echoes many of the same concerns detailed by 6th Judicial District Judge Jeffrey Wilson in his letter of September 26, also submitted to the BOCC.

You can download Judge Wilson’s September 26 letter here.

You can download Sheriff Valdez’ October 3 letter here.

As with Judge Wilson’s letter, the Sheriff’s letter mentions fainting employees, staff hospitalizations — and hydrogen sulfide (H2S) and carbon monoxide (CO) as possible culprits for staff health problems. The claim of ‘carbon monoxide exposure’ in these two letters was a new development for this reporter. Up until this point, I’d heard only about ‘hydrogen sulfide exposure’ — but tests by two different testing companies had thus far failed to find H2S in the Courthouse.

So the conversation had apparently moved on to another possible culprit: a gas called carbon monoxide.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is commonly added to the atmosphere during fuel combustion.  Environmental studies measure the amount of CO in the air in terms of “ppm” (parts per million.)  In humans and animals, CO can cause health issues when it bonds with blood cells (hemoglobin). The amount of CO in the bloodstream is typically measured by “percent COHb in the blood.”

Sheriff Valdez wrote:

“As Judge Wilson explained in his letter, the Undersheriff and I had our CO levels tested prior to going into the [Courthouse] and as soon as we left the building. Both of our CO levels doubled in about an hour’s time.

“This is extremely concerning to me and unequivocally proves to me that the building is not suitable to our staff, our public and our inmates at this time. These anomalies, these sicknesses, and the test results themselves speak volumes to me.”

At the Tuesday, October 3 BOCC meeting, Sheriff Valdez was asked to share the details of his experience with ‘doubled’ carbon monoxide levels. The Sheriff summarized the experience he and Undersheriff Tonya Hamilton had undergone.

“When we went in there on Monday, we walked through with the state and the testing company. We watched it; we stood right there when they did the testing, in the clerk’s office and in the courtrooms. And they opened doors and shut doors and we kind of walked around with them.

“It was then, when we were walking through with them — they didn’t have any signs of H2S, but they did show signs of elevated carbon monoxide. So when he would shut the door to the court clerk’s office, [the CO levels] would go down to zero for five minutes or so. Then we’d open the door and he’d see it spike. He would also see it spike in the [abandoned jail facility.] It was spiking at different levels. So the Undersheriff and talked about that, and we said, ‘What can we do?’”

We will pause here for a moment and note that the Sheriff never told us what he meant by “spike.” For example, did he mean 10ppm? According to the EPA website, average levels in homes without gas stoves vary from 0.5 to 5 parts per million (ppm). Levels near properly adjusted gas stoves are typically 5 to 15 ppm. Levels near poorly adjusted gas stoves may be 30 ppm or higher.

When he spoke about CO levels “spiking”… did the Sheriff mean 100ppm… or maybe 200ppm? We were left wondering…

Sheriff Valdez continued :

“So we made the decision, ‘Can we go get our blood drawn?’ So the Undersheriff and I called the hospital, because we wanted to confirm, is that really what it is? We had headaches that day. We were feeling dizzy. But you needed a doctor’s order to get blood work, so we didn’t do it that day.

“But the next day, Undersheriff Hamilton discovered that the EMS has a machine in their ambulance that reads your [CO] levels. And you know, it can vary. So we went down there [to the EMS office]. And Sheriff Hamilton registered — I think it was a ‘6’ — and I registered a ‘3,’ and then it went down to a ‘2.’”

“So the following Monday, we had some stuff to do inside the [Courthouse] office. But we contacted EMS and they came down there and did the test. I tested at a ‘1,’ and Undersheriff Hamilton tested at a ‘3.’ We went back into the building. We did our stuff; it took 45 minutes to an hour, roughly. When we came back out, I had doubled to a ‘2’ and she had doubled to a ‘6’. So when the state asked us about the test, we told them about it.

“We did it again yesterday, when we were going in [the Courthouse]… When I came out, I had doubled to a ‘2’ … and the Undersheriff’s actually went down.”

The Sheriff did not explain the ‘scale’ he was referencing as he related this story. We might assume that a ‘6’ means “a 6% COHb concentration.” That’s less than the blood concentration typically found in a heavy smoker (according to University of Rochester Medical Center.) I cannot confirm whether or not Undersheriff Hamilton is a smoker; that question was not addressed by Sheriff Valdez during his testimony on October 3.

Natural levels of carbon monoxide (CO) in the air are typically below 1ppm, according to the World Health Organization. But people who spend a great deal of time in traffic — truck drivers, taxi drivers, police officers — may experience atmospheric CO levels above 50ppm… and up to 120ppm on a jammed Los Angeles freeway. Such exposure can generate COHb blood concentrations higher than 15% in non-smokers — and even higher in smokers.

Elevated CO blood levels can also be caused by riding in a vehicle with a faulty exhaust system, or by spending time in a building with a faulty or poorly adjusted heating system. And presumably, people who work in an office at the corner of a busy highway (such as the Courthouse?) would experience higher COHb levels than, say, a retired schoolteacher tending her garden near Lake Hatcher.

Both Chief Judge Jeffrey Wilson and County Sheriff Rich Valdez have directed their employees to stay safely away from the Archuleta County Courthouse, based at least partly upon Sheriff Valdez’ blood tests, and his statements about ‘elevated carbon monoxide levels.’

While searching for a photo to illustrate this editorial installment, I came upon this image:

You can purchase a six-pack of Kidde Code One battery-operated carbon monoxide alarms for $99 at Home Depot.  For $1,000 the Sheriff and Judge Wilson could place about sixty (60) easily-installed carbon monoxide alarms throughout the Courthouse, and perhaps be able to dispense with the blood tests — and any unnecessary anxiety.

Alternatively, we could increase our sales taxes by $27 million and build the Sheriff a brand new office building…

Read Part Three…

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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.