EDITORIAL: Big Stink at the County Courthouse, Part Three

Read Part One

As we mentioned in Part One, the letter from 6th Judicial District Chief Judge, Jeffrey Wilson, drew some criticism from Archuleta County Commissioner Michael Whiting during the Tuesday, October 3, Board of County Commissioners meeting.

At that same meeting, County Sheriff Rich Valdez presented a similar letter to the BOCC, making essentially the same complaints about possible environmental dangers inside the County Courthouse… based on, among other things, the hospitalization of two deputies — one in March 2017 and one in September 2017.

The Sheriff’s letter noted that the Pagosa Fire Protection District had conducted testing of the Courthouse in December 2016 — following numerous health complaints by County employees — and had found “levels of Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S) ranging from 1ppm to 200ppm throughout parts of the building.” Levels of 100pmm are considered “Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health” by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Hydrogen sulfide has an odor of rotten eggs.

Subsequent testing by a professional testing company in December found no dangerous levels of H2S anywhere in the building.  Was the Fire District’s testing equipment faulty? Had the H2S appeared ‘out of nowhere’ and then disappeared just as suddenly? This is obviously part of a larger mystery — and clearly a serious mystery, when we are talking about hospitalized deputies.

As Sheriff Valdez noted in his letter to the BOCC, the deputy hospitalized last month was discharged from Mercy Regional Medical Center in Durango with the following “Primary Discharge Diagnosis”:

“Acute hypoxic failure secondary to non-specific alveolitis hypersensitivity pneumonitis associated with workplace antigen exposure.”

According to BioMedCentral.com,

Hypersensitivity pneumonitis (HP) is a delayed allergic reaction usually due to “repeated and prolonged inhalation of different types of organic dusts or other substances to which the patient is sensitized and hyper responsive, primarily consisting of organic dusts of animal or vegetable origin, more rarely from chemicals…

“HP can be caused by multiple agents that are present in work places and in the home, such as microbes, animal and plant proteins, organic and inorganic chemicals.”

From the American Lung Association:

“It can take several months to a number of years to develop allergy to the dust. Only a small number of people who inhale this dust actually develop hypersensitivity pneumonitis…

“There are more than 300 known substances which, when inhaled as a fine dust, have been known to cause hypersensitivity pneumonitis… If you work in certain occupations, then you may be at an increased risk of developing hypersensitivity pneumonitis. This includes farmers, vegetable or dairy cattle workers, bird and poultry handlers, veterinary workers and animal handlers, grain and flour processing and loaders, lumber milling, wood stripping and paper and wallboard manufacturers. Another risk factor is inhaling certain chemicals produced in plastic manufacturing, painting, and the electronics industry.

“Most individuals who work in such occupations do not develop hypersensitivity pneumonitis.”

The disease appears to be relatively common among people who keep pigeons and other birds.

From the National Institutes of Health:

“As only a small proportion of individuals exposed to specific antigens develop the disease, contributing factors of a predisposed genetic background are likely to be implicated.”

To then summarize this (admittedly brief and cursory research) into the doctor’s diagnosis of the deputy who was hospitalized last month, he or she had built up an allergic reaction to something in the “workplace” (the County Courthouse) over several months or years, but the exact type of dust or chemical remains a mystery. We would not necessarily expect other individuals to have the same reaction.

The first article quoted above also implies, however, that HP is often misdiagnosed.

Following the October 3 meeting, I asked Commissioner Whiting to clarify his objections to the fact stated in Judge Wilson’s letter, which led to an impromptu press conference that included myself and Pagosa Springs SUN reporter Randi Pierce, Commissioner Whiting, County Administrator Bentley Henderson and County Attorney Todd Starr.

During that press conference, Administrator Bentley Henderson gave us his reaction to the judge’s letter:

“The main questions that I had [about the Judge’s letter] revolve around an item, here… where the primary contradictions come in. He mentions ‘myriad of other safety concerns exist in the Archuleta County Courthouse, which in and of themselves require remediation. These include, but are not limited to, questions concerning the structural integrity of the roof, faulty wiring, particularly in the clerk’s office, a wooden fire escape for the third floor roof above the clerk’s office… and the lack of adequate escape routes…’

“The roof has been repaired for almost three years now. The faulty wiring was fixed almost a year ago. The exiting system is code compliant. I don’t know what else a person could ask you to do, on a building that’s 80 years old…”

One important thing has changed since April 2015, however, and may be worth noting. That’s when the County abandoned its detention center, without thoroughly renovating it, following a serious roof leak. That section of the building remains abandoned.

What happens to a building… or to one wing of a building… when it’s no longer used and maintained on a continuous basis? I have no answer to that question.

Read Part Four…


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.