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Article published Dec 1, 2013

Man charged with spread of mercury in Durango

Suspect acquired element at job site he was cleaning

By Brandon Mathis
Herald Staff Writer

Most Durango locations that were closed or evacuated for dangerous mercury levels are now open after the Environmental Protection Agency and a restoration crew from Salt Lake City performed cleanup and repeated evaluations over the weekend.

The Durango Transit Center, Durango Public Library, Durango Community Shelter, Town Plaza Coin Laundry and Manna Soup Kitchen have reopened. Karola Hanks, fire marshal with the Durango Fire & Rescue Authority, said teams thoroughly tested the locations and reported them safe for the public.

“We have been cautious, and we’ve been back and rechecked all facilities that have opened,” Hanks said on Sunday. “We keep doing that to make sure nothing else pops up that we haven’t found. So far, we’ve been clear.”

Hanks also said while the overall cost of the incident has not yet been calculated, it is feasible that the EPA could absorb the total amount.

Detox of La Plata County remains closed.

Levels of mercury are measured in nanograms, Hanks said. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry website, mercury levels occurring in urban air can be between 10 and 20 nanograms per cubic meter. In nonurban settings, it can be much lower.

She said the Detox showed levels of between 25,000 and 30,000 nanograms per cubic meter, calling it extremely contaminated.

Daniel Plummer, the man suspected of possessing a leaking jar of mercury, voluntarily admitted himself to Detox last week.

“Those numbers were extremely high,” Hanks said. “So Detox is going to take a couple more days at least to clean up and make sure that we get it.”

The building that houses Detox has another occupant, but that space tested safe.

Plummer acquired the mercury from a job site where he was cleaning an old residence, Hanks said.

“It was originally in a jar that was about 2 to 3 inches in diameter and about 6 inches in height,” she said. “And it was full. That’s a good amount.”

He legally obtained the liquid metal from the owner of the residence, but there is still no information as to why he was carrying it, she said..

“He’s had a lot of discussion with law enforcement that I am not privy to,” Hanks said.

Durango Police Department Lt. Ray Shupe said Plummer is being charged with felony criminal mischief, a Class 3 felony, and reckless public endangerment, a Class 3 misdemeanor. His bond is set at $25,000.

Plummer led members of the EPA and police officers to his campsite site early Sunday morning so it could be evaluated, Shupe said.

Mental illness may be a factor in how Plummer’s case is managed by law enforcement and the courts.

“It’s nothing we’ve proved,” Shupe said, “but that’s based on some statements he made about why he even had the mercury.”

“The case is being handled by the 6th Judicial District Attorney’s office, and they’ll make the appropriate determination of what needs to happen,” he said.

Hanks called it a complicated process.

“It takes many agencies to work together closely to bring something like this to a conclusion.”

South City Market revealed trace levels of the element that never presented a threat to public safety.

“Those levels were extremely low,” Hanks said. “We had a long discussion with them and the EPA, and we talked over all of the details and what those trace levels meant and didn’t mean.”

“I commend them for even considering a cleanup,” she said. “I think they really evaluated the process.”

She said that the city and county have a strong ability to work with agencies in emergency situations.

“It just goes to show that we have a very good working relationship with other organizations,” Hanks said. “We saw it during the Missionary Ridge fires, and we’ve seen it in other emergencies. We’re just extremely appreciative to have that.”

bmathis@durangoherald.com