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Health threat shuts down court proceedings in Archuleta County

District judge asks county to identify interim courtroom
Multiple people have experienced health problems while working at the Archuleta County Courthouse because of a suspected hydrogen sulfide leakage, 6th Judicial District Court Judge Jeffrey Wilson wrote in a letter this week. Wilson said legal proceedings would not be held at the courthouse until county officials determine a remedy.

Sixth Judicial District Chief Judge Jeffrey Wilson has asked Archuleta County commissioners to identify a temporary location to house courtroom proceedings until “very serious health hazards” can be resolved at the Archuleta County Courthouse.

During the last few years, deputies, jurors and judicial employees have complained of headaches, eye irritation, sinus issues, coughing and fatigue after working in the Archuleta County Courthouse, Wilson said in a four-page letter sent this week to Archuleta County Commissioners.

The problems grew more serious this year when two Archuleta County Sheriff’s deputies passed out inside the building and three deputies were admitted to intensive-care units at hospitals. The most recent deputy to be admitted to ICU needed to be airlifted to Denver for a higher level of care, but he couldn’t be moved because the local hospital couldn’t adequately stabilize his condition, the judge said.

Wilson ordered all courthouse proceedings be stopped Sept. 6 at the Archuleta County Courthouse and moved 60 miles west to the La Plata County Courthouse, where they remained this week. But it was done on an emergency basis; with the health threat still unresolved, he asked commissioners Tuesday to identify at least one courtroom and office space for judicial proceedings.

Wilson

“While we have been able to conduct Archuleta County Court proceedings in La Plata County on an emergency basis, we cannot continue to do so indefinitely,” Wilson wrote.

In an interview Friday, Archuleta County Commissioner Michael Whiting downplayed the need for a temporary courtroom and associated offices. The county has done extensive environmental testing during the past two years, he said, and none of them has suggested the building is uninhabitable.

“We can dispense with the experts if we’re not going to put any weight on their results,” he said.

Further test results are expected to arrive Monday, he said.

“The preliminary results of this testing are all negative for toxins,” Whiting said.

Whiting suggested the recent health problems people experienced at the courthouse are not a result of toxic environmental conditions.

“Those people’s safety is very important to the BOCC (board of county commissioners), but coincidence and cause and effect are not the same thing,” he said.

In his letter, Wilson suggests hydrogen sulfide seeping from the ground might be causing the health problems.

The Pagosa Fire Protection District responded to the courthouse on Oct. 29, 2016, to investigate a foul odor in the sheriff’s office and jail, which are connected to the courthouse. The fire department was able to detect hydrogen sulfide in the jail and control room, but it was unable to locate the source of the poisonous gas. The fire department recommended removal of all prisoners and jail deputies.

The fire department, accompanied by the Durango Fire Protection District, tried to locate the source again the next day but were unable to detect the gas in or around the building. The odor returned the next day, Oct. 31, 2016, and the fire department again performed tests, this time detecting hydrogen sulfide in the jail with significantly higher levels on the roof of the building, in a drain pipe from the roof and in a nearby geothermal well.

The fire department recommended that Archuleta County shut down the geothermal well and equip the building with hydrogen sulfide monitors.

But no monitors were installed, Wilson said, and he was unaware whether the geothermal well was shut down.

Since evacuating the building Sept. 6, the county and judicial department have contracted for air-quality testing in the building. Neither found measurable levels of hydrogen sulfide, but one of the contractors was able to smell the odor of sulfur in the court’s hearing room and in the sheriff’s office, Wilson said.

Elevated levels of carbon dioxide were observed in the clerk’s office, which is consistent with gas infiltration from geological structures below the building.

“During the testing, the contractor and accompanying judicial personnel suffered from light headaches and dizziness while in the jail,” Wilson wrote in his letter.

Archuleta County Sheriff Rich Valdez and Undersheriff Tonya Hamilton accompanied the contractor while testing the building, and both experienced headaches while at the facility, he said.

Both had their blood tested Sept. 19, revealing elevated carbon-monoxide levels. They had their blood tested again Monday, and both had lower levels of carbon monoxide in their systems but still above normal.

“Later that day, the sheriff and undersheriff re-entered the building with EMS personnel to retrieve items needed for the sheriff’s office,” Wilson wrote. “After two trips into the building for a total time of approximately one hour, the carbon monoxide levels in their blood doubled compared to their test earlier the same day.”

In the oil and gas industry, hydrogen sulfide is known as a “knock-down gas,” the judge said. At sufficient concentrations, it overwhelms the sense of smell and is undetectable without monitors. A person exposed to a high enough concentration of the gas will pass out with potentially fatal results.

Long-term exposure to low levels can result in various injuries, including changes in a person’s blood and damage to a person’s kidneys. Chronic exposure to low levels of the gas can affect a person’s ability to smell.

Several weeks ago, Sheriff Valdez was sprayed by a skunk, but he was unaware of it until he went into his house and his family informed him of the odor, the judge wrote in his letter to county commissioners.

Hydrogen sulfide and other noxious gases are released by sulfur in hot springs. The courthouse and the sheriff’s office sit above and next to geothermal pools, which, according to the fire department, produce hydrogen sulfide.

Noxious gases, including hydrogen sulfide, are insidious in that they 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 when the ‘burps’ are expelled,” Wilson wrote. For that reason, a single day or two days of testing is not conclusive. The judicial department plans to do more tests, including of the courthouse’s geothermal heating system.

Wilson reminded county commissioners of the legal consequences government agencies may incur when people suffer injuries as a result of dangerous conditions in a public building. Resuming court and probation proceedings in the courthouse with knowledge of the situation before a complete investigation is done could be found to be “willful and wanton conduct,” the judge warns.

“Based upon the details listed above, I am not willing to risk the health of the public and my employees in the Archuleta County Courthouse until I am convinced that all aspects of the building are safe,” he wrote. “I do not know how long it will take to complete our investigation or when I will be able to make a decision as to whether the 6th Judicial District will return to the Archuleta County Courthouse.”

In the meantime, Archuleta County must provide and maintain adequate court facilities, Wilson said. The court requires at least one courtroom and office space for the court clerk and probation department, he said.

“While we have been able to conduct Archuleta County Court proceedings in La Plata County on an emergency basis, we cannot continue to do so indefinitely,” Wilson wrote.

Jury trials in excess of two days will need to be heard in La Plata County unless two separate courtrooms can be identified.

The judicial department has used county commissioners’ meeting room as a temporary courtroom in the past, but that will not be acceptable for a temporary courtroom and office space, Wilson said, because it is located directly across the street from Pagosa Middle School.

“In our normal course of business, we will have drug dealers, sex offenders and other violent offenders attending court and meeting with probation officers,” Wilson wrote.

shane@durangoherald.com

An earlier version of the story erred in saying a deputy was transfered to a Denver-area hospital. The deputy’s condition couldn’t be sufficiently stabilized for the move.

Judge Wilson's letter (PDF)

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